Edutopia: Inside George Lucas’ Quixotic Plan to Save America’s Schools

It was just about a year ago that I first started paying attention to Edutopia.  They’ve been around for years, but they weren’t on my radar screen.  Then suddenly, they wouldn’t stay off it.  You couldn’t listen to the radio without hearing their ubiquitous underwriting credit on NPR, with its sublimely confident tagline “What Works in Public Education.”

If there’s anything in education that raises my eyebrows (and occasionally my ire) it’s the True and Only Solution.  I started paying attention, visiting their website and subscribing to their (recently shuttered) magazine.   I was surprised that I wasn’t more familiar with Edutopia.  It is, after all, the education philanthropy of the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF).  Think Star WarsIndiana Jones…that George Lucas.  His pockets are every bit as deep as guys named Gates, Broad and Walton.  But Lucas’ name never comes up in the same sentence with those better known billionaire ed philanthropists.  I was curious why no one ever talked about Lucas in ed reform conversations.

Lots of reasons.  For starters, the annual budget of the George Lucas Educational Foundation is $6 million.  That’s dog track money for Gates and Broad.  And Edutopia’s vision is a galaxy far, far away from the hardcore structures, incentives and accountability ideas promoted by the big boys.  Still, no one seems to have given much scrutiny to Edutopia.  The few articles that have been written tend to go weak in the knees over Lucas without paying much attention to his ideas about schooling.  And Lucas himself is an unlikely education philanthropist, having taken pains over the years to paint a picture of himself as a bored, indifferent student.  If Edutopia was going to start aggressively promoting its vision, it seemed worth taking a look at the efficacy of their ideas.  This piece (“Edutopian Vision,” in the Summer 2010 issue of Ed Next, now available online) is the result.

If the 21st century skills movement put out a greatest hits album, it would sound a lot like Edutopia. Their vision revolves around six “core principles”:  project-based learning, technology integration, social and emotional learning, integrated studies, teacher development and comprehensive assessment.  Of these, the clear favorites are project learning and technology.  That’s no surprise, considering Lucas’s enthusiasm for technology and hands-on learning (he spent his teenage years goofing off in school and playing around with cars).   The head of GLEF boiled the Edutopia philosophy down to six words: “School life should resemble real life.”  I can boil that down to one: “Dewey.”

One curiosity about Edutopia:  it’s really a media outfit, staffed almost exclusive by writers, editors and TV people, not educators.  They make videos and post oodles of web content.  In essence they’re really good publicists for a certain brand of education, served up with a gee-whiz vibe.  They’re based in Marin County, California, a stone’s throw from San Francisco and Silicon Valley.   A decade ago during the dot-com boom, there was a brief, intense flowering in that part of the world of so-called “new economy” magazines–titles like Fast Company, Business 2.0, Red Herring, The Industry Standard, Upside and Wired.   Some wag once described these publications, nearly all now defunct, as reading like a cross between the Harvard Business Review and Highlights for Children.  Change HBR to Education Week and you’ve got Edutopia.

But it would be wrong to dismiss them. They’re an earnest bunch and they offer an attractive, teacher-friendly, alternative vision to the data-obsessed ed reform triumphalism that has the firm upper hand in education at present, yet too often defines well-educated as “reads on grade level and graduates on time.”  By contrast, Edutopia’s vision is large, generous, and all-encompassing.  It’s hard to find fault with that.  At least it’s hard for me.  Still any organization that purports to define “What Works in Public Education” is setting a mighty high bar for itself, and it’s not always clear that Edutopia can deliver the goods.  An attractive vision and an efficacious one are not always one and the same.

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