LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E18: Revisiting the Promise and Potential of Charter Schools 30 Years Later

glowing lightbulb on dark background
Johannes Plenio / Unsplash

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts,Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

As charter schools face challenges in the Beltway, Diane and Michael go back to first principles around the purpose of charter schools by revisiting the original 1992 California Act that created charter schools in the state, and assess how they’ve done. They then do a deep dive into innovation theory to revisit the promise and potential of charter schools and discuss how the reality lived up to the theory. Finally, they project forward to thinking about what the future might hold for charter schools.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey Diane, it’s good to see you as we come down the home stretch of the traditional academic year and calendar, and I hope you and your teachers and staff are all, frankly, just hanging in there in what’s been yet another trying school year.

Tavenner: Hanging in there is a good way to describe it, Michael. I wish it weren’t so, but I was talking with someone this morning and we just had to really acknowledge that the waves, they feel like these waves of impact from the last two years just keep crashing and you get these moments where you’re sort of breathing and you think, okay, and then here comes another wave. We will find a path forward, but it’s certainly not going to be through business as usual, Michael.

Horn: And that connects to why we started this podcast in the first place. And of course this season we’ve wanted to root each episode in our own curiosity and ask questions that expand not only our listeners horizons, but also our own, by pushing our own understanding to find nuance and often common ground that others might not see. And that curiosity and search for paths forward, we both think is incredibly important, certainly in the wake of the pandemic that has impacted, as we said, now three school years, but also for a school system that just wasn’t working for the vast majority of students even before the pandemic started. So it’s with that lens that we wanted to tackle, today, a topic that I suspect people may at first blush say, well, what could possibly be your all lens of curiosity here, but I think they’ll kind of get it as we get into the topic, which is all around charter schools.

Tavenner: Charter schools! Michael, now let’s at least be super upfront here just in case someone listening doesn’t know, I’ve been leading charter schools for 20 years and Michael, you, I would call you an on the record supporter of charter schools, and we are both at a point in our lives and our work where we’re just no longer interested in treading the same old territory and fighting the same old fights. And so given headlines about the most recent clashes over charter schools in D.C., not just charter schools in D.C., charters across the country, but D.C.’s role in this, we started talking and wondering, and ultimately remembering that the California Charter Schools act was passed in 1992. It was the second in the nation. And so safe to say that, sort of the beginning of charter schools in the US, and we thought there was maybe an interesting new lens or angle there.

Horn: Well, we’ll get to the D.C. fights later, but I think that’s right. We want to start with the 30-year anniversary because it gives us an opportunity to pause, reflect, and perhaps bring a new lens to where we are today in hopes that we might have some insights into where we go tomorrow. So, Diane, I want to go back to the very beginning. What was the vision for charter schools?

Well, that’s always a great place to start, Michael. And I’ll be honest, I was just graduating from college in 1992, so I wasn’t personally involved at that point. That said, I always think it’s important to start with a plain reading of the law, because it actually includes the intentions of the act. And while every state has… every state that has charter schools, which is 43 of them, plus Washington D.C., plus Puerto Rico and Guam, they all have different laws. And so I want to note that. They’re not all going to be the same. That said, I do think you’re going to find a lot of similarities in the intentions. And so let’s break down the California law to just ground ourselves in what tend to be the common, original intentions of charters across the country and certainly in California.

Just going to read a couple sentences from the charter schools act of 1992. It says, “It is the intent of the legislature in enacting this to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure as a method to accomplish all of the following.”

Horn: Diane, I’m going to stop you there for a moment, hold up. Before you even share all of the following and what the law wanted to accomplish, I think it’s worth pausing on some pretty important words right up front that you just said, and those are, “independently from the existing school district structure.”

Tavenner: I’m so glad you stopped me because this is where your expertise comes in, Michael, and where I think this conversation gets interesting, for me. Because as someone who studies, writes about, speaks about and well, I mean, you are an expert in innovation and disruption, certainly in education, what do you make of those words?

Horn: Well, education was kind of stuck at that time, if we rewind the clock. But momentum was also coalescing. It’s sort of this interesting period. It’s out of the Nation at Risk report that had been published nearly a decade earlier, really to reorient schools around student achievement and bolstering their opportunities, and those of the nation. And folks were really starting to focus on two key strategies. One revolved around the academic standards conversation and transparency or accountability, and the second focused more on the arrangement of schooling, to use Ted Kolderie’s phrase. And for those who don’t know, Ted was the guy in Minnesota who helped author the first charter school law in the nation just the year before California. And basically the phrasing in the California legislation makes me think, “Gee, we have a structure that is stuck. We need autonomy or independence from it so that we can innovate and create something new because we know that it’s really hard to change the fundamental architecture of an established structure that has historically been successful and is well entrenched.”

Tavenner: Yeah. That resonates with me. And so super helpful to get your lens on it. Let’s now dig into holding that independent piece. Let’s dig into what the legislature intended for these independent schools to be able to accomplish and to do, sort of our charge, if you will. There are seven pieces. Let’s run through them. The first is kind of a “no duh,” it’s improve pupil learning. The second one, another sort of “no duh,” is increase the learning opportunities for all pupils with a special emphasis on expanding learning experiences for those who are identified as academically low achieving. The third one is to encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.

Again, I don’t think any of these sound crazy or revolutionary. The fourth one is create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site. The fifth one is to provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system, so that was key. Number six, hold the schools established under this part of the law accountable for meeting measurable student outcomes. But here’s the key Michael, and provide the schools with a method to change from a rules based to a performance based accountability system. And then finally to provide vigorous competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements in public education.

So, Michael, there are seven items there, and this is how I would group them. Three of them are about student learning and outcomes. I don’t think it’s an accident that they are number one and number two. And those are really simply about improving student outcomes and increasing opportunities, especially for those students who are low achieving. I’m just going to pause for a moment to notice how much our common language in education has changed in 30 years. I don’t know about you, but I’m sort of stumbling over some of those words that we just don’t really use anymore. That’s an aside.

Horn: Pupil, pupil.

Tavenner: Yeah. The third one is, yeah. And so, the third one’s about holding schools accountable for pupil outcomes, but those are the key three. The other four can be thought of as, I would say, pathways or conditions to get to better student outcomes, specifically by encouraging innovative teaching methods, creating new opportunities for teachers to be responsible for the learning program, providing choice to families and, yes, providing vigorous competition to stimulate improvement through the system. I honestly can’t believe we’ve never talked about this, but when you wear your Michael Horn innovation theory hat, what do you make of this? And before you say it, I am going to confess that before I met you, I read Disrupting Class, and actually our whole entire team did, and I read it, I read it as a call to action and a blueprint for the work that we were engaged in. And so now I’m wondering if I read it right.

Horn: Oh boy, so I’ll get to that in a moment, Diane. But I can’t help but note that the fourth item on that list, create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site, that kind of describes your own journey from teaching and then leading a district public school into charter schools. We can get there later, but to your question itself, look, when we wrote the book, I’ll be honest, there were a bunch of people putting a lot of pressure on us to say that charter schools were disruptive. And so Clay Christensen and I spent a lot of time analyzing and debating that question. And ultimately we concluded that they didn’t seem disruptive from our perspective. They seemed like what we would call a sustaining innovation. And I think in the book, we were pretty clear about this. Although I don’t know that everyone read those sentences when they read the book.

Tavenner: OK. Perhaps guilty as charged, or maybe there’s some more to get into here. The quote that’s coming to my mind is, aerodynamically a bumblebee should not be able to fly, but it doesn’t know that, so it keeps on flying. I guess I’m glad I didn’t ask you about this 11 years ago. But seriously, let’s dig in. What’s the difference between disruptive and sustaining innovation?

Horn: So Diane, we can go down a lot of rabbit holes and we might end up doing that in unpacking this concept over the course of the podcast. But at a high level, I think of sustaining innovations as meant to make improvements to the existing menu of products and services. These improvements could be small tweaks, or they could be those giant breakthrough leaps forward, totally new architectures. But the goal, if it’s to improve the current mainstream offering, then we say they’re sustaining the current improvement and that’s a sustaining innovation.

I’ll give you a couple examples. Take television sets, for example. Innovations that make TVs better, and those could be from the existing TV companies, it could be from new television manufacturers, but if they, are designed to produce sharper pictures, bigger screens, better colors, more intuitive interfaces, more robust choices, even including smart TVs with internet, all of those, we would call sustaining innovations. And the key is that they serve people who are underserved because they want and need more functionality.

Now, disruptive innovations in contrast, are those that come in with products or services that are actually inferior compared to the dominant services out there. But they, Diane, in essence, they redefine competition, and they make things far more affordable, accessible, convenient, and simple to use. So think of an iPad relative to that large screen, fancy TV maybe. Or when you think of electric cars relative to gasoline powered ones, don’t think of Tesla, instead think electric golf carts in senior citizens communities or in China. And because these disruptive innovations are initially more primitive, they don’t start by serving the traditional users, so like students. Instead, they start by serving non-consumers of the dominant products of the time, or people who are actually overserved by the existing services.

But, and this is an important but, there has to be some sort of technology enabler that allows this primitive service to reliably get better and better each year, without undermining this redefined value proposition around affordability, simplicity, convenience, and accessibility. That helps explain why McDonald’s or Holiday Inn come at the low end, but they don’t disrupt Bouchon or the Four Seasons. There’s no technology enabler to help them get better. So from an innovation theory perspective, let me just bring this back to schools, essentially charter schools came in as a classic sustaining innovation in the sense that they said this, let’s do schooling better than traditional schools. But fundamentally we still were building schools with their basic assumptions and structure and the idea was certainly not that they would be primitive or worse than the current set of options, Diane.

Tavenner: Hmm. Fascinating, Michael. Did charters even have a chance of bringing the type of improvement to public education that was envisioned in the act that we just read? And if so, how so?

Horn: Well, I think they did, Diane, for a few reasons. First, there were a lot of underserved students who needed something better, or something to at least kickstart the dominant district schools to innovate and improve. I think a big misreading of our work is that sustaining innovation is bad and disruptive innovation is good. If you don’t have sustaining innovations, you do not have a healthy ecosystem. Let me just say it again. You need sustaining innovations for a healthy ecosystem and without them you have a challenge.

Tavenner: And arguably, in the 90s, it was not a healthy ecosystem in public schools. Well, I mean, arguably the same today.

Horn: 100%. Right. I think in that sense, that was a service. And then second and related, if these sectors without sustaining innovations don’t improve, and by the way, I would say public schooling had improved really through the 1970s and then they started to stall out, but they had improved in different ways. But the problem is that the pace of improvement had clearly stalled, and it was limited to these improvements that fit the existing organizational models of schools.

Tavenner: Ooh, okay. Let’s talk organizational model. What do you mean by that?

Horn: Yeah. So when I say it, I’m thinking basically, I have these four boxes in my head, Diane. The first one is the value proposition. What’s your service ultimately trying to do for people? How is it helping them make progress in their lives? And to deliver on that value proposition, you got resources, teachers, school buildings, curriculum, stuff like that. And as those teachers and curriculum and classrooms, and they all start working with each other, processes emerge over time, ways of teaching, ways of lesson planning, ways of scheduling. Some of those are written down, some of those frankly aren’t and those become very… That’s where culture, we’ve talked about this before, really lives. And then priorities really emerge. What an organization can do, but also what it can’t do, as judged basically by its revenue formula, how it funds those processes and resources to deliver on that value proposition.

Let me get a little more specific about how charters fit into this, because in my mind, they represent what I would call something critical, which would be called a heavyweight team. And this is a concept from Kim Clark, former dean of the Harvard Business School and Steve Wheelwright, a professor there, and basically heavyweight teams are designed to rethink the fundamental architecture of schooling, in ways that the traditional organization, or in this case traditional schools, can’t do. So that goes to the line that they would be independent from the “existing school district structure” to in essence, be able to rethink large parts of it.

Now, to be clear, heavyweight teams can’t fully rethink the priorities of an organization. They aren’t enabled like disruptive innovations to rethink the revenue formula, which is critical to creating something disruptive, but heavyweight teams are important for architectural or structural advances. So the mental model in your head is, think of the Toyota Prius relative to traditional Toyotas with gas powered engines. Essentially, by building the Toyota Prius, that enabled hybrid cars to become a sustaining innovation, and then that spread to all of the automobiles in the Toyota lineup.

Now, I guess this relates to the second thing, Diane, and it starts to go down the rabbit hole, which is that in disruptive theory, it shows us that charters, because they have the same revenue formula, would be in direct competition with public district schools. And what the theory of disruption says is that incumbents, the existing organizations, typically win battles of sustaining innovations against their startup competitors. So here’s an important point, charter schools essentially would be competing with district schools for funds in similar funding formula based on enrollment and attendance.

And what the theory of disruptive innovation rather, I think correctly, points out, is that those district schools would have many of the advantages of the incumbent in trying to ward off this charter competitor, more resources, more political connections on and on. But, these charters would be able to build those big structural changes in places that districts would struggle to do. They’d create some vital breakthrough innovations for underserved students. Which again, that’s why you need these sustaining and not disruptive innovations. Students who are underserved by schools, they need something that is better than what it currently exists. I’m going to pause out there though, because I’ve been geeking out for a little while, but I’m curious how all that lands with you.

Tavenner: I love how you’re geeking out and as you are, I’m having a flashback to my introduction to charter schools. And it’s so interesting, I think, the emotion that is coming up as you’re talking about this. I’ll just tell this story quickly. I was a graduate student at Stanford. I was getting my master’s in policy and school administration. And as folks know I worked in traditional district schools. And at that time I was an administrative intern and high school teacher while I was doing my masters. And in one of my classes on school design, of all things, we had a guest speaker who was starting a charter school. And honestly, I knew very little about charters, if anything, really at the time. And I can remember feeling so defensive and so competitive as I listened to this person speak, I literally will never forget it.

And she and her former teaching partner who were just completely fed up with trying to change the school that they had been pouring their heart and soul into, which was very familiar to me in my experience. And so they had just quit their jobs, borrowed some money from their families and were going for it and starting a school that they felt like they could believe in and felt like it would better serve the students that they felt like were falling through the cracks in the traditional high school that they were teaching in. I mean, that story just feels like it matches so much of what you are saying, Michael, and I vividly remember those feelings of being in a district school and telling myself all sorts of stories about how there was no way that those people were going to succeed. And then, of course, a few years later I found myself in the very same position and feeling equally passionate to their passion. And oh, by the way, with a ton of people acting really defensive towards me and telling me that I would fail.

That’s kind of a long story, but it’s so interesting to me as I think about how things have played out between district schools and charter schools and all the various players who are associated with them and invested in various sides. It seems like the theory could have predicted a lot of what we’ve seen and I have personally experienced for the last 25 years, and specifically the fierceness of this competition. Am I interpreting that correctly? Was this a setup, Michael?

Horn: I think you’ve got it exactly right, Diane. I mean, essentially you’re going head first into direct competition with an incumbent. To be clear, a lot of charter founders didn’t necessarily want to compete. Many others did, but from the perspective of the incumbent, you’re taking a student away from me and they perceived that as a threat and wanted to combat it. And the whole value network, not just the schools, but everyone around them, did so as well.

This is an interesting sub point, Diane, but Clay’s original theory when he did his original doctoral work, it showed that startups that took a disruptive strategy succeeded roughly 36% of the time. So that’s not an overwhelming success. But those that took a sustaining strategy succeeded 6% of the time. So disruption was 6x more effective than sustaining when you were going up against an incumbent. Now to be clear, that sustaining strategy for the startup did succeed 6% of the time, so it’s not impossible, but here’s the thing. It cost a lot of resources. That’s how I think you can explain what Tesla has been pulling off, for example, not disruptive, but they’ve raised some 20 billion or something since it’s IPO, and they’ve lost 9 billion or something like that. And I think that sort of explains the charter story in many ways of what they’ve been going through as well.

Tavenner: Wow. You’re kind of blowing my mind today, Michael. So given all of the resources that have gone into the competition part of this, or explained by the competition part of it, or however you want to think about that, and I’m just going to say, competition’s kind of putting it nicely. We’ll set that aside. Let’s talk about the vital breakthrough innovations. From your view, do you think charters have created these vital, breakthrough innovations in the last 30 years? And please say, yes, it was at least worth it.

Horn: I think it’s a mixed bag, Diane, around breakthrough innovations. But on the whole, to your question, “Was it worth it?” I would say an emphatic, “Yes.” Because charters proved that black and brown children and children from low income households can succeed in school. Full stop. And different charter schools have introduced different breakthroughs that have caused people to do different things, whether it’s the many innovations that you all have pioneered at Summit or things that KIPP has done from more school time, to agreements with families, to greater provisions of service and sweating the small stuff or Match Charter Schools with its tutoring. Writ large, there have been a number of ways, I think, that charters have created some important innovations. And I think there’s mounting evidence that in the few places where charters have started educating a significant percent of students in a geographical area, remember across the nation they’re only educating 7% or so nationwide, but in those places where they’re up to 15% or 20%, or even 50% and more of the students, they’ve caused district schools to up their game as well in really positive, meaningful ways. And I think they’ve changed the dialogue in positive ways in those areas as well.

Now, I say it’s a mixed bag because to some degree whether something is a charter or not I kind of think misses the point. And that’s where I’ve often been seen as allying with the district schools. Because the charter is just how it’s organized. It doesn’t say anything about someone will do what that theoretical autonomy, but writ large, I think they’ve done what the theory would suggest they would do, introduce some important sustaining innovations, create some important competition and boost the lives of many students who wouldn’t have had such choices or opportunities. But I’m curious your take, because you’ve been living in it a lot longer than I have.

Tavenner: That’s fascinating to reflect on your comments. As you might imagine, people often ask me what I think charters have accomplished. I chaired the board of the California Charter Schools Association for a number of years, and so found myself in a lot of places to be talking about and reflecting on this. And there’s something that I always say, from my view, and I’m interested to overlap it with your take, and that is that charter schools have done, in my view, two really, really important things. The first is they’ve proven, I believe, that schools can be run more efficiently and effectively when released from a lot of the bureaucracy and the control of the system. I think this aligns with what you’re saying and what we’re talking about.

And then more importantly, and I’m just going to underline what you said, because we’re clearly in agreement about this. They have proven that all children, specifically brown and black students and low income students, are capable of becoming college ready. So I’m going to go even more specific, and you know I’m in the middle high school range here, but when charters started in the nineties, it wasn’t a proven fact that low income black and brown students could all be prepared for college. And today, I truly believe, thanks to charters across the country, we have definitively proved that to be true. And so Michael, there’s a constant debate about student outcomes in charters with people taking all different sides. And you know these discussions all too well. They are all comparisons and studies and experts and lots and lots of claims. The thing that’s super frustrating to me about the fight to declare either that charter schools are getting better outcomes in district schools or they aren’t, or there is a mixed bag, is that we are fighting over the wrong measures.

This view is not going to be surprising to anyone who’s been listening, but given how many times we’ve talked about the shortcomings of our testing system for measuring what really matters, why is that what we’re using to decide how charter schools are doing? And this is why I love going back to the original charter law and rereading the part that says, “And provide the schools with a method to change from rule based to performance based accountability systems.” And when you step back from all those psychometrician debates about which schools are getting better outcomes on reading tests, and instead look at the actual outcomes that matter to families, I think the value and contribution of charter schools becomes much clearer.

Charter schools offer choice in the public school system that low income families generally do not have, but upper income and middle class families do because they can afford to pay to go outside of the system. Charter schools were the first high schools in America to systematically prepare low income black and brown students for admissions to four year college and, school districts have responded to the competition, to your point. I have personally experienced that year over year, over year.

And so my assessment Michael, is that in 30 years, collectively, charter schools have made significant progress on five of those seven intended outcomes that the law names, increasing those opportunities, creating new professional opportunities, providing choice, holding schools accountable, and moving to a more performance based than rules based, although they’ve been thwarted in that effort, providing the competition. And so that’s where I’m coming out.

Horn: Diane, I think we’re in violent agreement on this. I think it’s actually interesting. I never thought about this until you said it, but the fact that they’ve done better on maybe on the efficiency architectural innovations, rather than breakthrough kind of makes sense, given what’s been held constant in their organizational models and what they haven’t been allowed to tweak, but I’ll also note you left off two things out of the seven. One was improve pupil learning, and two was encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods. As someone who has led a network of very innovative charter schools for a while, I’m curious why?

Tavenner: Well Michael, this is where I think we all have to be really reflective and honest about those two intentions that I left off. I cannot make a compelling case that charter schools have actually improved pupil learning. I think they’ve given access and opportunity to a lot of students who didn’t have it before and therefore, far more students are learning, but I think the innovation there is far more about mindset, just the belief that it’s possible, and like we said, like I said, the efficiencies than innovations in how the learning actually occurs. And I think that’s largely because I don’t think we’ve really contributed innovations in the teaching model yet, which is that second piece.

Horn: Yeah. So I think I’ve tipped my hand on this earlier. And once again, we’re in pretty close alignment. I’d probably give charter schools a little more credit on the improving pupil learning relative to the baseline. My read from the studies is that on average across the sector, they’ve lifted many boats and caused districts to do the same, but I don’t think it’s been uniform, and there have not been dramatic breakthroughs as a sector that perhaps I think most proponents probably wished for. And I certainly don’t think we’ve seen all that many charters do dramatically different and innovative learning methods. There are a few to be sure. We can name a handful of charters that are way outside the bounds of what you think of a traditional school, but many of them that have done that have been shunned, frankly, by a lot of the charter sector. As, to your point, the early success for many charters was just executing, in many ways, the traditional schooling playbook better than the traditional school districts, if you will. Not innovating in far flung ways, but executing.

Tavenner: Yeah. So let’s talk about the implications of this for the future and what insights that might give us for the present right now, Michael. Because in my view, given all that charters have achieved in 30 years, and again, I’m going to say five of those seven things I feel really good about, against that purpose, that they have made those achievements, I certainly think it would be incredibly regressive and detrimental to call the experiment of charters a failure and end it. That doesn’t seem like a wise thing to me, if you’ve made serious progress on five of seven.

And so I also don’t think that the direction a lot of policy makers, including the White House and the Department of Ed, in this very moment are headed in, is right either. They’re trying to make charters and the requirements around them more and more like district schools in everything, from governance, to rules based accountability, to measurement of outcomes, to well, all of the things that we’ve talked about on previous episodes that we often refer to in the charter world as, this is the death by a thousand cuts, which is essentially the layering of bureaucratic requirements in small doses, that when you add them all up, all of the freedom you gained and were granted to innovate is gone. And that whole first sentence about operating independently goes out the window, Michael.

Horn: I totally agree, Diane. And I’d add that one of the things I’ve been chagrined by is that, rather than trying to load charters up with more bureaucratic regulations, I wish proponents of district public schools, which I consider myself part of, and I suspect you do too.

Tavenner: Yes.

Horn: I wish they would do more advocating for more freedoms from the rules for them as well, in exchange for accountability around individual growth based performance or whatever they would sign up for, rather than hamstringing the entire sector. But I think even more pernicious is that you refer to the Biden administration’s pending regulations, is that these regulations would be incredibly damaging to the formation of new charter schools by dint of these new schools having to complete a community impact analysis that suggests that they wouldn’t create too much competition in a given district or exceed schooling demand in the community. Which in essence is the department saying, I’m just going to try to interpret it, we don’t want competition for districts. And that’s incredibly problematic in my mind because competition is what allows families to make choices that are right for them. And if more students are opting for charter schools, well then districts have a simple option, which is to improve their own services to win those students back.

And again, the theory suggests that the districts will have all the advantages at their back to win these games of sustaining innovation, ultimately. But cutting off the competition entirely undermines the sustaining innovations that underserved students need, regardless of where they ultimately get them.

Tavenner: And Michael, based on everything that we’ve laid out here, it undermines public education. We’re taking away an important part of public education that enables it to continuously get better. It’s just occurring to me as you’re talking, because what happens to systems that don’t have any competition in them, literally?

Horn: They wither.

Tavenner: Yeah. And none of us want that. At the end of the day, we’re all public school people. I mean, we sometimes forget, in all of these fights, that we have that in common. Oh my gosh. Let’s take a breath here.

If the pandemic proved anything, it was that K12 education across the board desperately needs innovation. And I’m going to go after innovation in the two places where I don’t think we’ve gotten yet, which is teaching methods and learning. Charters exist as an innovation engine. This is actually a structure we have, they exist. So what moves could policy makers be making right now to leverage them to take on these last two aspects of their charge that I think we haven’t gotten to yet, or we’ve just started poking around to. What would actually create the conditions from a policy perspective that would enable that?

Horn: Well, Diane, from the view of a broad set of innovation theory, I think of three things. First, you have to free these schools up more, not less, and that includes district schools, not just charters. Second, I think you need to start experimenting with the revenue formula. What would it look like to pay schools in part based on student progress, not attendance, for example. I’d love to see that applied to university as well, but I think charters are a nice place to experiment and not threaten the district schools so much at the outset. And third, as we think about what progress means, I think we need a lot more innovation in how we measure student progress.

This is obviously something we’ve talked about a lot, Diane. I think that while No Child Left Behind did a lot of good initially, the once a year testing regime around a relatively narrow set of outcomes that still stands in place more or less from it, is a tremendous drag on the innovations that we might and should see. What are your thoughts?

Tavenner: Wow. Well, as you know, I agree with all of those completely. It’s interesting because as you know, this is a space where Summit Schools have been working and pushing for about a decade now. And as I listen to you, I’m thinking about 20 years of work, that is all pointed at innovations to improve teaching and learning and, you know, Michael, I think we’ve done some really good work. I feel proud of the work we’ve been doing. And, as I reflect it’s foundational work. It’s condition setting work. And all of that had to be done to even create the opportunity to truly innovate on teaching and learning, and the technology tools had to catch up and we just haven’t gotten to it yet. 

And so do I think there’s a profound role for charters to play over the next one, two, three decades? Yes. Am I convinced that they’re going to play it? I am not convinced.

Horn: Whoa. Okay. Diane, I did not see that twist coming from you. So why not?

Tavenner: I think for two connected reasons. First, because the competition has gotten so vicious and so fierce that charters spend most of their resources and creative energy, Michael, just trying to stay alive and to retain the legal right to be innovative. And I would say in the last few years, we’ve actually lost a lot of ground there.

And I think the second part is a little complicated, but in short, I think that much of the early charter success was about believing in kids and being really good at running efficient and high performing schools and organizations. And charters were successful because of the policy freedoms allowed to charters, and because the people who went into this work focused on running efficient organizations. I do not believe that there is that much room for innovation and efficiency in our next chapter. And I’m not sure that the people who went into charters are the folks who are super skilled at and passionate about innovating and teaching and learning.

But I think maybe even more importantly, I think the demands to stay alive actually work against the ability to innovate in teaching and learning. Because to prove yourself as a charter, you have to just keep doing better on state test scores, since that is the measure that everyone’s bought into, despite our repeated pleas. And as you know, that in my view, that testing apparatus is the thing that is literally blocking innovation in teaching and learning.

Horn: I’m fascinated, Diane, on many levels. But I think what you just said, interestingly enough, reinforces what the theory of disruptive innovation suggests as well. First, we’ve largely seen architectural changes, but not radically different designs like disruptive innovation, not like that, iPad to the TV. And I think as a sector, there needs to be a decision, is this something that people want to take on in Elon Musk style with some crazy investment of resources for a 6% odds of success? Or are there other strategies that also ought to be employed? Maybe that’s a good place to leave what’s been a longer episode than usual for us, Diane, but it just shows charters, despite it being very familiar certainly to you and me to a slightly lesser extent, there’s a lot we can always learn. And so I’m curious outside of the education conversation, what are you learning yourself or what are you spending time on?

Tavenner: Well, to that point, right back in education, Michael. I have a subscription to MasterClass, so I am one of those… I’m exploring and experimenting in that learning space. And I am just wrapping up watching one of the master classes called Black Love: A Love Like No Other with just an amazing set of professors. It’s not just a single person. It’s this incredible set of people touching on all of the really hot topics of the day in really meaningful, thoughtful eye opening ways. It’s been a powerful learning experience. How about you?

Horn: Love it. We have the MasterClass subscription, too. I just interviewed, actually, their co-founder Aaron Rasmussen’s about his Outlier.org effort. It was fascinating. I’ll just say, Diane, actually, I don’t know the answer to this question. Are you left-handed?

Tavenner: No.

Horn: I didn’t think so. I am. We went to a series of children’s podcasts live at WBUR with my kids. And it was fun because one of them, the But Why podcast with the host Jane Lindholm, had just done an episode all about lefthanders, like why do we exist as 10% of the population? She’s left-handed. Rebecca Scheir turns out, the host of Circle Round, also left-handed. I saw as she was autographing paraphernalia for my kids. And so I’m just kind of like, “Hmm, maybe there’s something to me doing this podcasting thing, Diane.” And we’ll leave it there. But thank you, as always, for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today