The case for innovation is simple: less than half the schools in low-income areas of our big cities can meet the minimum state performance standards. Educators say, "We know how to make inner-city schools effective, but we can't do it until we get [fill in the blank: more money, more political will, a higher class of parents]." Don't let them kid you. We really don't know how to educate millions of children whose preschool preparation and home supports are far different from the American middle-class norm.
We need the kind of problem-solving effort that made it possible for America to go to the moon and find therapies for cancer and AIDS. We should encourage new initiatives and sift out the best for further development, until we have one or more options that can work.
Public education, however, fights this kind of problem solving. It is for innovation as long as school boards, district central offices, and teacher unions can do business as usual. Even charter schools, which could create diverse approaches to fuel innovation, are held down by the system. They get a lot less money than regular public schools and must pay for facilities that public schools get free. Many charter school leaders focus their creative energies on juggling bills and finding good teachers who will work for low pay.
Even when charter schools devise innovative ways of teaching, there is no mechanism for shifting money and students in their direction. State caps limit the number of charter schools that can exist, and local school boards fight charter schools that threaten to draw students away from district-run schools.
Real innovation is happening, but it is coming from higher education and private, often religious, schools. Middle College and Running Start programs are moving bored high school students onto college campuses, where they are too challenged and excited to drop out. Cristo Rey high schools remedy poor children's isolation from the mainstream economy by placing them into part-time office jobs, where they see how classroom lessons apply to the real world. Nativity middle schools, a precursor to the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), provide a twelve-hour day complete with classes, sports, motivation, mentoring, and fun. These programs work—especially for the low-income city children who languish in conventional schools.
School districts resist such innovations. School board members say that KIPP demands too much of teachers and that Cristo Rey and Nativity are too tainted by religion. Here the institutional arrangements get in the way of progress. To be open to innovation, public education needs to let people with new ideas start schools, allow secular imitation of religious models, allow parents to move from less to more promising schools, and let money follow children wherever they go.