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Parental choice, innovation and systemic education reform

Embracing technology and launching new schools  haven’t fueled the kind of innovation that will actually lead to meaningful improvements in the education system as a whole — at least not on their own, a new article published this week by the World Economic Forum argues.

Michael Barber,  the chief education adviser at Pearson UK, and Joel Klein, the former chief of New York City public schools,  outline a “playbook” for transforming school systems. The two authors, the chair and vice-chair of the forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education, look at systemic education reform from a global perspective, drawing on case studies from around the world.

They write:

[G]ood ideas are not enough. … So the central question is perhaps not the extent of innovation, but its quality and speed from idea to impact. Innovation is happening, but too little of it is focused at the heart of learning and when it does it spreads too slowly.

Investments in technology have largely automated existing pedagogies or delivered school efficiency savings outside of the core of learning and teaching. Where new school providers have entered systems, the innovation is often more about school marketing than reimaging the learning model. This prompts the question of how to spark the right type of innovation in education.

The authors suggest education leaders and policymakers should think about the whole system, and set clear goals — like achieving 85 percent literacy, or increasing the amount of time schools devote to instruction (as Chile did during a wave of reforms that began in the ’90s). Then, they should give educators the means, and the freedom, to meet them. 

That could include encouraging charter schools (as Klein himself did in New York City), or offering “well-designed” vouchers that allow parents to choose among public and private schools they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. The authors point to the success of a K-12 scholarship program in Colombia and a Pearson-backed fund that invests in low-cost, for-profit schools.

Choice can be created at many levels – students and parents can choose schools, or educators can have greater choice in where to work. Better choice, however, depends on the availability of quality options and quality information on those options. Creating options can improve outcomes, but, when dealing with markets, special care should be taken to ensure that equity is not sacrificed for the sake of efficiency.

Among their suggestions for leaders of school systems that embrace choice:

Act as a choice architect, using “nudges”, public report cards and mechanisms like unified, system-wide school lotteries to help focus on equity and quality. (Unified school lottery systems allow parents to list preferred schools, then use an algorithm to maximize the number of students attending a school of their choice; unified lotteries can limit “gaming” of applications and increase equity, particularly for disadvantaged families).

Innovation is a term so clichéd and contested that some education reformers argue it should trigger any reader’s “BS detector.” But it also describes a real thing the American public education system needs. Consider the present controversy over virtual charter schools. Despite their widely cited problems, they attract thousands of students, suggesting the rest of the education system isn’t doing a good job of offering better alternatives.

Klein and Barber write that system that produces those better alternatives can’t be dictated from on high. They write: “[Y]ou can mandate adequacy, but you cannot mandate greatness: it has to be unleashed.”

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)