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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Innovating Schools


One student prepares to run for elected office. Another has just finished an internship in a federal courthouse. A third is taking a college course on Kierkegaard.
These students are eighth graders.
Education can be transformative. And it can be transformed.


Education reform has been an ongoing effort for the past thirty years—but is the movement focused on reforming the right things? School reformers have proposed a variety of policies, from implementing charter schools,

to requiring school vouchers, to increasing funding for public schools, to raising standards, to lengthening the school day. Policy makers are inundated with potential “solutions” to school failure, each with its own proponents and detractors.

What if these approaches are misguided? What if the most important problem with school is the way that Americans organize and conceptualize school itself?

We are overlooking the most important reason why schools are not measuring up: they are based on a defunct educational model not suited to the 21st century. American education in both public and private schools has changed a great deal over time, but the core assumptions about how schools should be organized and how learning should work have persisted.

That model can be updated. A number of schools across the globe are now using incredibly innovative approaches while still meeting traditional accountability standards.

To improve the quality of education in this country, Americans will first need to grapple with what education has been, what it is now, and what it can be.


What are the goals of education, and what should they be? In his groundbreaking article, education historian David Labaree writes about three competing goals in the

American educational system: (1) preparing students for democratic citizenship, (2) training workers effectively, and (3) enabling people to achieve social mobility.1 He argues that these goals are all valuable but they sometimes conflict.2

These are attractive, aspirational goals for an educational system. A society with great citizens, great workers, and great success stories is certainly worth striving for. But how well is our educational system achieving these goals?

The voting rate in this country is very low,3 and most students do not know who their elected representatives are.4 Employers struggle to fill important jobs in math, computer science, and various technical fields. There are still far too many students who are left unprepared for college or the labor force and for whom the American Dream remains out of reach.

It would be comforting to know that the attempts to reform the American educational system were at least on track to meet these goals. But the many national attempts to improve outcomes, including No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core Standards, have decidedly mixed outcomes.There is a strong case to be made that the majority of American schools today have their roots in an old model, developed in the highly specific historical context of industrialization and the Progressive Era. Understanding that model can illuminate what the American educational system succeeds and fails at and how it can improve.


The birth of the modern American public school dates back to the turn of the 20th century, from the Industrial Revolution to the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. This was an era of great optimism, utopianism, and commitment to using scientific methods to innovate public institutions. Chief among the goals of this era were rooting out corruption and inefficiency and modernizing infrastructure. Schools were faced with the task of integrating huge swaths of new immigrants and training them to be productive factory workers. This is why schools began to use bells to signify changing classes—to train an efficient workforce that could switch stations quickly. Schooling only lasted five years on average, and most children and adolescents did not attend, typically serving in the labor force instead.5 Ethnic and racial minorities were largely excluded. Among the legacies of this era are tracking students (to sort potential workers), dividing students by age group, and punishing students for calling out or not lining up properly—all with a goal of producing good workers and acquiescent citizens.

There are three particularly disturbing elements of this model that have persisted over time, a century later.

The first is what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire calls “banking education.” The teacher is conceptualized as the expert, full of knowledge to impart to students, passive receptacles to be filled.6 This can be seen in the common classroom layout in which the teacher stands at the front of the room, with the students looking on. Students spend still far too many students who are left unprepared for college or the labor force and for whom the American Dream remains out of reach.

It would be comforting to know that the attempts to reform the American educational system were at least on track to meet these goals. But the many national attempts to improve outcomes, including No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core Standards, have decidedly mixed outcomes.

There is a strong case to be made that the majority of American schools today have their roots in an old model, developed in the highly specific historical context of industrialization and the Progressive Era. Understanding their time sitting, listening, and preparing to regurgitate what they have learned. This is often boring and disempowering, draining learning of its magic. For example, learning science could be about discovery, but instead it becomes a task of memorizing predigested concepts. Some students learn to adeptly jump through the hoops, while others abandon their classes or the subject matter entirely. But even those who seem to be succeeding are only succeeding at rote repetition.

The second is its focus on obedience. In many classrooms, students walk in, sit down, and are quiet for the majority of class. Students are required to raise their hand for the privilege to speak. They learn quickly to avoid expressing opinions with which the teacher disagrees. They are usually rewarded for acquiescing to authority and often punished for failing to do so. Education researcher Jean Anyon writes that this is part of the “hidden curriculum” of schools. Significant class time is spent not on learning but on discipline and norm induction. This kind of training seems counterproductive for the citizens of a democracy. If the goal is to produce a society of obedient workers, the United States may be succeeding. But the jobs of the 21st century demand the ability to think critically, to question the status quo, and to innovate.

The third is the one-size-fits-all curriculum. Students all learn the same things, surrounded by peers their age. They expected to move at the Goldilocks pace: not too fast, not too slow, but just right. There is social stigma associated with being left behind, or alternatively, advancing too far ahead. Students are given very little leeway to choose what they are learning or to explore their own passions or interests. Is it any wonder school becomes a chore?

American schools can best be understood as social institutions rather than as academic ones: learning is only one goal among many. Disturbingly, schools are much like prisons: an uncomfortable mix of education, social engineering, warehousing, and punishment.7 Stu- dents are required to spend between six and seven hours a day at school, five days a week, nine to ten months of the year, for thirteen years. Why is 15,210 hours the right amount of time to spend in school (with little regard to how quickly students learn the material)? These things are not done because of the evidence, but rather because they are the norm.

American society would be better served by creating new models for the process of schooling itself—ones that are more evidence based, genuinely interesting to students, and effective.


Innovation Unit is a United Kingdom–based nonprofit that works to promote more innovative forms of education for the 21st century. Its recommendations include empowering students and families, developing more authentic assessments, and thinking outside the box.8 It has identified ten innovative schools and school systems that are still successful according to traditional accountability standards.

One school, Colegio Cardenal de Cracovia in Santiago, Chile, explicitly rejects obedience as a paradigm. Instead, it promotes democratic values in the most direct way possible. The school is run as an independent republic, with a political constitution, cabinet, and other government “ministries” made up of teachers, students, and parents. Students run the Departments of Education and Health, help operate the school’s police force and Minis- try of Justice (holding trials for disciplinary action), and can run to become representatives. They also organize events during national holidays based on their cultural heritage and host a community public radio show to voice concerns and spark collective action in their communities. Far from paying lip service to “democracy,” this school is all about democracy in action.

Another set of schools, run by Big Picture International (BPI), empowers students to pursue internships in their communities from a young age. BPI started in Rhode Island and now runs 131 schools in five countries: Australia, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, and the United States. BPI focuses primarily on low-income communities: at the Met School in Rhode Island, the original BPI school, over 80 percent of students qualify for free school lunch.9 BPI students do internships in government and local businesses and carry out long-term projects in their fields of study. They drive their own learning. In consultation with parents and teachers, students create individualized learning plans and receive assessments through “journals, weekly check-in meetings, exhibitions, and an annual presentation of portfolios.” In the United States, these schools have a graduation rate of 92 percent, far exceeding the national rate of 66 percent.10

A third school system, Kunskapsskolan schools in Sweden, uses a flexible model that caters to individuals. Students take core classes online in modules and choose their own electives. They develop their own personalized education plan, setting long-term goals that they follow up on during weekly tutorial meetings. They can work at home or in one of Kunskapssokolan’s open study spaces or halls. Parents can follow their progress easily since all student tasks, results, and teacher comments are logged online. Not only is this schooling innovative and personalized, but the students outperform the national Swedish average assessment standard.

All of these schools exemplify a radical departure from the traditional American educational model. They also each meet a goal for education described by Labaree: Colegio Cardenal promotes democracy in action, BPI pre- pares students for the workforce via direct participation, and Kunskapsskolan empowers students to follow their own paths at their own pace.

What about preparing students for all of the goals? Inevitably, these schools face trade-offs on which goals to prioritize. However, it stands to reason that a student who is academically prepared will be more equipped to enter the labor force. Those in the labor force are statistically more likely to vote, and those who are used to the norm of democracy are more likely to advocate for them- selves in all phases of their lives. By excelling in preparing students on one goal, schools can advance the others.

These models are exciting for students because they give students the autonomy and the ability to shape their own destinies. In these schools, teachers are not the masters, but instead act as coaches and mentors. The models that these schools use are flexible, cost-effective, and exportable. They provide proof that seemingly unorthodox approaches can be effective on traditional accountability measures. Moreover, contrary to the concerns of some critics, these schools do not cost more than typical public schools. In fact, sometimes they cost less.11 They represent great hope for the future prospects of American education reform.


Yet there should be skepticism that schools like these, no matter how inspiring and effective, will be enough to transform an educational system mired in tradition. There have been many innovative schools before that did not spark widespread reform. Innovation is not automatically reproduced; change is a process, and a tricky one. There are three reasons why change is so difficult.

First, many prominent colleges and universities in this country still rely on the elements in the old education model. High schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools feel pressure to “prepare” students for the next level of schooling that they will encounter, and if those at the highest level use a certain method, the others will feel obligated to follow suit. If colleges and universities promote lecturing to large halls of students, teaching a one-size-fits-all curriculum, asking students to memorize by rote scientific and historical concepts, giving them multiple choice assessments, and incentivizing obedience rather than democracy in their classrooms, we can expect high, middle, and elementary schools to do the same. They may even face pressure from parents to do so. So putting pressure on the whole system of educational institutions in this country, starting at the university level, is key to any successful lasting reform.

Second, beliefs about school are so deeply rooted that it is difficult to imagine that education could take an entirely different form. Grades, lectures, exams, teachers in charge, same-age peers, and a set curriculum are all hallmarks of the American education system. It requires a high degree of commitment, self-belief, and radicalism for a principal to challenge this status quo. Ominously, those leading schools today have been brought up in schools of the past and may be most comfortable teaching in the style they were taught in, thereby perpetuating this model.

Third, many may believe that “school reform” is already taking place. But most reform efforts do not target the old model of education as the thing most in need of reform. Little attention has been given to transforming the American educational model to meet the demands of the 21st century. There are some exciting programs and schools, but the vast majority of students are stuck in the same system. There is a risk that Americans will not get very much reform at all while believing that school reform is largely moving in the right direction.

Transforming the American educational model may sound radical, but it is the most prudent and sensible course. Reform efforts that do not attempt to update the current educational model, no matter how well intentioned, are unlikely to overcome its most important flaws. While school reform is still in the spotlight, we should spark a public dialogue over what 21st century education should look like. There is proof that new models can work. But we’ll need to fight for them.

Mark Dlugash is a 2014 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He previously studied education and psychology at Swarthmore College.



1 Labaree, David F. “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals.” American Educational Research Journal 34(1): 39-81, Spring 1997.
2 Other goals, such as developing and pursuing intellectual curiosity, may help complement Labaree’s framework.
3 Badger, Emily. “Why Is Voter Turnout for Mayoral Elections Always So Abysmally Low?” Atlantic Cities, 10 September 2013.
4 Daley-Harris, Sam. Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government, 20th Anniversary Edition. Camino Books, 2013.
5 Tyack, David, and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Harvard University Press, 1995.
6 Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 1970.
7 On prisons, see Liebling, Alison. Prisons and Their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality, and Prison Life. Clarendon Press, 2005.
8 Hampson, Martha, Alec Patton, and Leonie Shanks. 10 Ideas for 21st Century Education. Innovation Unit, 2011.
9 Hampson, Martha, Alec Patton, and Leonie Shanks. 10 Schools for the 21st Century. Innovation Unit, 2011, 15.
10 Ibid.
11 For example, Kunskapsskolan schools do not take any school fees from students—they use the same funding structures as Swedish public schools.