Florida parents and educators may be building the education value networks of the future

Organizations like Surf Skate Science pioneering new approaches to collaboration in public education. Photo credit: Chris Aluka Berry AlukaStorytellingPhotography.com


Despite calls for reform and waves of attempted transformation, key features of American schools have been remarkably stable for more than a century.

Students spend six or so hours a day, five days a week, sitting in rows of desks with other children about the same age, receiving instruction from their teachers in specific subjects: language arts, math, science and social studies. At the end of the year, they advance to the next grade. In high school, they socialize while standing next to banks of lockers, and the varsity football teams play on Friday nights.

These conventions persist despite their flaws. Students are frequently passed along to the next grade despite gaps in their academic foundations, leading them to graduate unprepared for life after school and few opportunities to close those gaps. If political leaders decide new knowledge or skills will be essential for students to thrive as adults — computer science, say, or financial literacy —cramming new subjects into the existing curriculum is a major headache.

The more time students spend in conventional schools, the more bored and disengaged they become. Some of the most engaging parts of schools have been relegated to the periphery—career academies, extracurriculars, sports, drama or music programs— where common schooling conventions hold the least sway. These are the places where students form deep relationships, develop lasting memories, and hone skills like creativity or teamwork.

So why do these conventions persist? Innovation researchers at the Clayton Christiansen Institute coined a term for one set of hidden forces that can keep an existing system in place despite pressure for change: A value network.

Textbook publishers and education technology companies design their products for conventional schools. Construction firms specialize in building them. Colleges train teachers to work in them. Complex webs of afterschool programs, summer camps, tutoring centers, and youth sports leagues all design their programs around conventional assumptions about when students will be in school. Parents and employers design the workweek around it.

These interdependent forces pose huge hurdles for any innovative educator who wants to break from convention. So, Christiansen’s Thomas Arnett argues it’s best not to try within the confines of the existing system.

Instead, he advocates creating not just new learning experiences for children, but entirely new value networks that can allow new assumptions to take shape.

In Florida, and in in pockets all over the country, this is starting to happen. Here are two promising places to look for the value networks of the future.

Homeschool parents and community institutions 

Some of the most valuable learning assets in most communities lie wholly or partially dormant during school hours. Museums. Parks. Zoos. Community centers. Science centers. Aquariums. Libraries. Performing arts theaters.

Their role in the value network of a conventional school system is relegated to the periphery: Hosting field trips, afterschool programs, or summer camps.

This is a huge missed opportunity. A single day a student spends at a place like this can often be the highlight of their school year. And while field trips are often rare and logistically complicated, there is evidence they not only help boost students’ academic learning, but help them develop character skills such as empathy and conscientiousness.

One group of students gets to experience these places more frequently, a way that is more central to their learning experience: Homeschoolers.

A growing number of community institutions, like libraries and science centers and museums, now offer dedicated programs for homeschool students.

If a trip to the aquarium could be the highlight of a student’s year, why not take them every month, or every week? Show them behind the scenes. Let them go deep learning about specific sea creatures or oceanic habitats and how they change over time. Offering learning opportunities of this sort would squarely align with an aquarium’s mission of increasing public understanding and appreciation of aquatic ecosystems.

Homeschool families are partnering with these community institutions (many of them public, by the way) to create new value networks that don’t relegate community assets to the periphery, and instead make them a central part of more children’s learning experiences. Over time, more children may benefit from these pioneering efforts.

Schools that partner by design

Right now, if an innovative educator creates a new way to teach chemistry through cooking, or math through music, or electrical engineering specifically for girls, they have three main options to find an audience for their idea: Start a whole new school, figure out how to sell their program to schools and districts, or create an option on the periphery—designing an afterschool program or summer camp and marketing it to families who pay out of pocket.

Each of these options is daunting. The existing education value network stifles the creativity of would-be entrepreneurs and keeps potential contributions of countless community members on the sidelines.

But here again, the efforts of a few pioneers have begun giving rise to new value networks, in this case by launching learning that are more inter-operable with other partners than conventional schools.

Like an old ship that creates a new home for coral, some of the earliest microschools and homeschool co-ops in South Florida have given rise to entire ecosystems of educators who create specific offerings and partner with smaller, more flexible learning environments to deliver them to students, as my colleague Ron Matus has documented.

The value network of the future

Other societal forces are creating pressure for new value networks in education. More parents than ever are working remote and flexible jobs. Scholarship programs allow more public education funding to follow students to whatever learning environment they choose. Information, which was scarce for most of human history, is now abundant.

If existing conventional schools find a way to adapt to these realities, it will likely be because they find ways to connect to entirely new value networks created by entrepreneurs working outside it.

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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) sufs.org.