The Open-Source School District

Last month, I asked why schools ignore so many good ideas. Have we not gotten the incentives right? Is it poor leadership? Do we have an ineffective system for disseminating promising practices? Or are superintendents, principals, and educators simply overwhelmed by the avalanche of advice that lands on their desks and in their inboxes? Might there be a way to help them sift the wheat from the chaff, then make good use of the former?

I believe there is. Let me introduce the open-source school district.

Imagine the creation of a virtual school district. It wouldn’t have any actual students, teachers, buses, or facilities, but it would have a school board, a superintendent, and a central-office staff. (The superintendent and staff would be paid real salaries and be housed in a real office; the school board would be made up of various “education experts” or maybe “stakeholders” who, like real school board members, would volunteer their time.) It would be given a demographic profile—say, a medium-sized, inner-ring suburban district of 10,000 with a fair amount of racial and socioeconomic diversity. It would inherit the student achievement results, policies, and practices of a typical district. We’d situate it in an actual state, too.

This “school district” would be charged with developing and constantly updating a strategy for improving achievement and otherwise addressing the needs of its fictitious students. The board and superintendent might start by laying out a schedule for the year in which they would look at different key topics every month. Maybe in September, they would tackle a plan for implementing the Common Core. In October, they would look at teacher and principal evaluations. In November, they would consider how to improve students’ non-cognitive skills. And so forth.

The “central office” would have staff working in roles similar to real districts: an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, a chief human-resources person, a budget director, etc. These people might serve a faux district, but they would develop real plans to present to their superintendent and board. And—this is key—they would have tremendous resources to tap in helping them put these plans or policies or budgets together. Namely, they would have a big research budget and/or access to professionals at a think tank like the American Institutes of Research to help them sift through all of the relevant research, ideas, promising practices, and vendor pitches.

Imagine what might happen if such a “school district” took off. First, it would develop policies, procedures, and plans that would be as robust as technocratically possible—aligned with the latest and greatest research and thinking available. These policies, procedures, and plans could then be swiped (or adapted) by real school districts for their own use. Second, it would provide small vendors of excellent products, think tankers with promising ideas, and advocacy groups brimming with sound suggestions with a national platform by which to spread the word. Everyone would know that if you wanted your policy or nostrum or solution to spread, you had to convince the open-source school district that it was worth embracing.

Of course, this would only work if actual school-board members, superintendents, central-office staff, and principals knew about it and found it helpful. It would be critical to get them involved—not just as recipients of the “content” produced by the OSSD but as producers themselves. (This is what makes it “open source.”) They could join digital communities with others in their roles (all of the superintendents or HR managers, etc.) and interact with OSSD staffers as they develop their work products. If practicing educators had an idea or product or policy or practice that worked, they could share it with the virtual educator—and thus, the entire network. They could also watch the school board in action via a live stream or after the fact via video.

I’m convinced that an open-source school district would be a fascinating experiment and would probably produce some excellent materials. It wouldn’t be perfect—every state is different, for instance, so real-live district folks would have to adapt materials and approaches for their own contexts. Furthermore, there would be no way to replicate the true push and pull of local politics with which real districts must contend. (How to come up with a model teacher-union contract, for instance, in the absence of a teacher union?) One could also imagine all manner of lobbying and political pressure being placed on this faux district if its decisions affected the “real” marketplace. Board members and staff would need to be chosen carefully. Everything would need to be totally transparent.

I think those of us in the “idea-generating” business would be sobered by the experience. We would gain a better appreciation of the huge amount of conflicting advice and pressure that school districts and their leaders face. In fact, the most interesting part of the experiment would be seeing how the OSSD handles competing priorities and a policy environment that is anything but coherent. It might help us better understand which state and federal policies are helping districts improve and which are getting in the way.

And (in anticipation of my colleague Andy Smarick’s reaction) yes, this assumes that school districts still have a major role to play for the foreseeable future. While that may not be the case in some of our big cities, I think the familiar structures will endure throughout most of the country and its suburbs and small towns. And it’s the small- to medium-sized districts—which serve nearly half of the nation’s public school students—that could benefit the most from this initiative, as they don’t have the scale to have much central-office capacity.

Think this idea has promise? Do you represent school boards, or superintendents, or central office staff? Or do you have money to give away? Let’s talk.

—Mike Petrilli

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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