LA Goes Pure KC | How We Overcome the Charter School “Innovator’s Dilemma”

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

Lots going on in CharterLand.

I’m looking forward this week to being with the Charter School Growth Fund for a live recording of WonkyFolk and with the Sims Conference for a panel discussion about the state of charter schools nationally. If you’re at either, please come up and say hello.

Meanwhile, I’m remiss in not extending thanks to so many of you in recent weeks who have offered new paid subscriptions to CharterFolk. I haven’t been reminding Folk much of late, but the economic needs of the nonprofit from which I take no compensation are continuing to increase as we keep taking on additional responsibility. So if you in some way feel like you are benefiting from CharterFolk, I encourage you to join our other paid individual subscribers. Meanwhile, if you come from an organization that would like to join our growing list of organizational subscribers, please ping me directly at

On we go.

LA Goes Pure KC

Earlier this week …

… I wrote about the nonsensicalness of school districts being authorizers of local charter schools. I said it was like a football team – say the Kansas City Chiefs during last week’s Super Bowl – fielding a team and serving as the referee at the same time and then claiming their decisions are impartial. This week, we saw it again in a big way:

LA Unified calling holding on charter schools.

In other parts of the country, where we see the local school district acting in ridiculous ways …

… the local newspapers …

… tend to point out the ridiculousness.

In Los Angeles, sadly, it’s like the school district is suiting up the local journalists as well.

A couple weeks ago, covering another story …

… LA Times Reporter Howard Blume reported:

L.A. Unified, whose enrollment is expected to plunge by nearly 30% over the next decade, has virtually unlimited classroom space in general

Leading me to proclaim:

Would that Howard would write as much in a Prop 39 story!”

And what did he write in his very next Prop 39 piece?

Nary a word about excess space, much less “virtually unlimited facilities.”

Meanwhile, the LA Times Editorial Board has gone pure KC, endorsing a school board candidate who is one of the primary architects of the new nonsensical Prop 39 policy.

So the matter is now headed to the courts where the school district hopes to find “chief justices.”

They’re up for a rude awakening.

In an era of “virtually unlimited facilities,” I can’t see the courts deciding any different than they have before.

But it’s going to require significant resources to make our case, CharterFolk.

It’s why I stay focused on the North Star I’ve talked about since the early days of CharterFolk …

… one that would provide the volume of resources needed to put a CAPE on the shoulders of the charter school superhero.

Referees in red stripes across the country demonstrate that the need for such a cape has never been more pronounced than it is today.

How We Overcome the Charter School “Innovator’s Dilemma”

For the past couple of weeks I have been meaning to turn to this good news story coming out of Texas.

Triumph Public Schools is growing into Abeline.

This is how the article describes the school’s program.

The tuition free charter school uses non-traditional practices like 4-hour school days and innovative instruction for students.

Gautier Triado, Triumph’s corporate instruction officer, told KTAB/KRBC how the scheduling difference is best for the students.

“We offer our students the alternative to a traditional 8-hour day at any public ISD. When our students enroll with us, they do have the option to attend from 8:00 to 12:00 or from 12:00 to 4:00, respectively, and it just opens up a lot of opportunities for our students,” Triado assured.

The fact that the reporter led her story about the school’s innovativeness prodded me to think again about innovation, a topic I have been meaning to address for several months now.

Can’t you just imagine the back-and-forths happening in Abeline about Triumph’s level of innovation?

Offering two four-hour options, rather than one traditional school day, is so innovative!

Simply changing your daily calendar doesn’t constitute innovation.

Allowing students to come in on their own time allows us to offer an innovative tutoring approach!

What’s innovative about one-on-one instruction? Education’s been doing that since the days of Aristotle and Alexander the Great.

Customizing the curriculum to each individual student is revolutionary!

But look at the materials themselves. Sections of text books? Web sites? That’s the same curriculum students have been accessing for decades. What’s so innovative about that?

Whether charter schools have proven to be innovative enough over our first three decades has become something of a political football. Charter school opponents build resistance strategies around the assertion that we haven’t been innovative enough, which they argue undercuts our original reason for being.

Some people in ed reform contend that excess regulation has curtailed our ability to innovate.

Others look at the very same study and draw a very different conclusion …

… though both accept the proposition that charter schools haven’t been innovative enough. It leads many of our greatest champions to push our world to innovate more.

While chartering in and of itself has outlasted other innovations in the field of education, we can’t point to many pedagogical innovations that have originated in our classrooms. Most of the innovations that charter schools have championed are in the management area and oriented around expanding the school day and school year, as well as staffing structures.

– Nina Rees

The Christensen Institute …

… is an organization pushing for greater innovation in a variety of fields including education. The Institute’s founder, Clayton Christensen, wrote the Innovator’s Dilemma …

… perhaps the most definitive treatise about innovation to have come out in our society in many decades.

His thesis is that those who are in the best place to innovate often face a great disincentive to do so because it could cause them to cannibalize their own profits. So they stifle their own innovation until a day when some new upstart innovator suddenly overtakes them.

He called such a predicament, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

My thesis is that charter schools face an innovator’s dilemma, too.

But it is one that is distinct from the dilemma other innovators in our society face.

Ours is born of an assumption going back to the very beginning of the charter school movement that our schools were supposed to be innovative. Clinton talked about it all the time in the early going.

The problem is that it’s all well and good to have created some expectation that we’re going to be innovative, but how are we supposed to demonstrate it when, as Robin Lake described it in the middle of the Massachusetts Question 2 Campaign some years back …

“Innovation is in the eye of the beholder.”

Here we are, eight years later, and beholders’ eyes are as varying in their outlook today as they’ve ever been.

For some it’s all about technology.

For others it’s about use of data and early childhood instruction.

Many define innovation to be whatever the direction is they would like to see education evolve into generally, like this group asserting that innovation is, literally, whatever Dewey said to do.

Innovation means doing what John Dewey told us to do.

And being an old High Tech High guy myself, my shelves are as stacked with Dewey books as anyone’s.

But don’t you think it just a tad ironic that a holy grail of innovation would be aspiring to the ideas of an author who wrote about the “Schools of Tomorrow” …

… 109 years ago?

This is how muddled our thinking is on the topic of innovation as charter schools head into the “Era Beyond the Beginning.”

So here are three quick thoughts about how we can best position our movement to overcome the charter school innovator’s dilemma.

Remember the “Compared to What”

First, keep front and center that innovation, generally, isn’t happening anywhere in education. It’s something Michael Horn, Co-Founder of the Christensen Institute and Diane Tavenner, Founder of Summit Public Schools, keep reminding their listeners about every time they do a podcast.

Would we want charter schools to be even more innovative than we have been?


But in comparison to all other schools in society today, what else is innovating more than, or nearly as much, as charter schools are?

Private ed?

Higher ed?

Mister ed?

The fact is that, generally, across the entire world, education is held within an iron cage.

So the compared to what question must always be posed.

Because any evaluation of the the charter school movement’s ability to innovate that fails to take into account the utter fixity that prevails virtually elsewhere else in education would do a great, great disservice to our cause.

Secondly, Improvement Is Innovation and It’s Happening Now in Charter Schools At Unprecedented Scale

One thing we could all do to help charter schools transcend our innovator’s dilemma is to try to keep a reasonable definition of innovation in our landscape.

The Wiki definition seems helpful.

Innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services.

By this definition, the opening of Triumph in Abeline is definitely a triumph in innovation because it introduces a new good or service into the local landscape.

But even more importantly, the definition keeps the common sense reminder that improvement is in and of itself a completely legitimate form of innovation.

For decades we have had the story that a significant portion of charter schools were undoubtedly providing a vast improvement in educational opportunity relative to what students and families previously had access to, but then the discussion got stifled because critics would turn to research saying that charter schools in the aggregate were not generating better outcomes than other schools.

But, CharterFolk, that is no longer the case.

The CREDO 3 study clearly demonstrates that the collective charter school sector, which has grown to serve nearly 4 million students, is now generating significantly improved results relative to traditional public schools, with the greatest improvement having been created for students who have been historically underserved.

Name something, CharterFolk, name anything, in education over the past century that could make such a claim?

It’s innovation at a societal scale, something the charter school movement has grown to be able to achieve unlike any other reform effort that has come before us.

And it’s high time that we begin to describe our own shared progress as such.

A Running Record of the Collective Breakthroughs in Innovation Shows that Innovation is Another of Our Triumphs

Finally, this post is already getting long, and there’s really no way I can do justice to this aspect of the story in the space that remains, but we simply have to do a better job of reminding the world of the breakthroughs in innovation that charter schools have engendered over the decades.

Because perhaps the greatest component to our innovator’s dilemma is the fact that many of the innovations that charter schools have spawned since our inception have become so commonplace in education they’re not even recognized to have been innovations any more!

A comprehensive running record of the innovations that charter schools have engendered over the past 30 years could keep us reading for weeks.

It’s a pantheon of accomplishment that we should never let the general public lose sight of.

Whether it’s …

  • Project Based Learning
  • Personalized Learning
  • Self-Paced Learning
  • Student-Led Learning
  • Hybrid Instruction
  • Virtual Instruction
  • Mastery-Based Learning
  • Tutoring-Enhanced Learning
  • Full-inclusion Special Education.
  • Dual immersion
  • Montessori within the public realm
  • Waldorf within the public realm
  • Early college.
  • Primary Centers
  • 5-8 Models
  • K-8 Models
  • K-12 Models
  • Early Childhood
  • New Adult Education Models
  • Extended Day
  • Extended Year
  • Drop-Out Recovery
  • Incarcerated Youth.
  • Tribal Education
  • Internship-Based Instruction
  • Trade-Integrated Instruction
  • Themed schools of every kind imaginable
  • Diverse by Design Schools
  • Culturally Specific Schools
  • Community School/Wrap Around Service Concepts
  • New forms of teacher preparation
  • New designs of school facilities
  • New approaches for discipline
  • New integrations of technology

… to name but a few …

… the fact is that, over the past three decades the charter school movement has been the primary driver of nearly all of the important innovations that we have seen in public education.

But society has amnesia. We ourselves have amnesia.

Making the Innovator’s Dilemma we face more vexing than it needs to be.

It’s why in the Era Beyond the Beginning, I hope we begin to make it easier on ourselves by more boldly claiming the innovations that charter schools have created, and indeed continue to create to this very day.

Because when we do, we will find the deeper truth, which is that innovation is not some weak spot for the national charter school movement, but is, in fact, another of our greatest triumphs.