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Jun 5, 2017

How can education drive city development?

For years, the thinking in mayors’ offices (and chambers of commerce) was straightforward: Increate test scores in K-12 schools, and your population will stop leaving for suburbs, and the city economy will grow. Such logic seemed unassailable. Among other things, it created a vicious cycle of hiring strong, charismatic superintendents. To be hired, they had to make unrealistic promises of quick fixes, and dramatic increases in test scores. Within a couple of years, boards become disillusioned, unions put up a fight, and everyone is looking for another charismatic hero, who will have the magic.

There is no magic. Test scores are very stubborn thing; they take years and years of slow, invisible work to budge. They are determined largely by the demographics of student population. All miracle cases have to do with gentrification; all collapses have to do with middle class flight to the suburbs. Reforms, accountability, school choice – all а these have only marginal, almost invisible impact, at least in the short run. I wish it could be different, but it is not. Some people out there, like Eric Hanushek, are still looking for another silver bullet; in his case, it is the idea of firing poor performing teachers. Others like Betsy DeVos, are still hoping against all evidence that vouchers will deliver radical improvement. Both are very much mistaken.

I was thinking all this while listening to West Sac mayor Christopher Cabaldon’s powerful speech last week. I was invited thanks to Steve Lewis to their State of the City event. I think he is on the right track with the Homerun initiative. If you read it carefully, it focuses not on schools, but on everything else that goes into student performance.

One more thing he and other mayors should consider is the innovation dividend. Tests we use in public education are very powerful, but incredibly narrow measures of student success. The further we move towards the knowledge-based economy, the less adequate they become to measure the work force readiness. While many research groups work on measuring the 21st Century skills measures; none is yet good enough and cheap enough to impact instruction. While we wait, the next best thing I to stimulate the low-level, grassroots innovation among educators. Such innovations are no more likely to increase the standardized test scores than the top-down reforms. However, the very engagement in experimenting, in trying something new is likely to be passed on to students. We can expect students of an innovative teacher to be a little more open to change, more creative and innovative, more able to communicate, to collaborate with each other. While I cannot yet prove this claim empirically, this is the best direction for the K-12 education I can see right now. The grassroots innovation is actually fairly inexpensive, if you compare it with staggering costs of accountability reforms. They go well with teacher professional development and induction, which remain the weak link in the school improvement efforts. Mayors and superintendents everywhere should think about it. There is no need to give up on schools; you just need to try a different approach.

Parents make school choices, and ultimately, residence choices not only on test scores, but on overall reputation of a school and a district. Are they interesting? Innovative? Good for children? Have something unique to offer? Such reputation is built with grassroots, wide-spread innovation. T also tends to make teachers happier, more in control of their work, and more likely to stay. 

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