Scaling big ideas is second nature to Ted Fujimoto, founder and president of the Landmark Consulting Group, a consulting company dedicated to scaling innovations in learning. He’s worked on replication systems and strategy for innovative U.S. public school designs like New Tech Network and Big Picture Learning, and also co-chairs the nonprofit Right to Succeed Foundation.
When New Tech High School began, Fujimoto says, most students generally had earned grades of a C or below. But with the incorporation of internships and project-based learning, New Tech’s students started shining academically. “The engagement and student agency were over the top – staff literally had to kick kids out of the school building at 7:30 at night because they would not leave,” Fujimoto told Education Dive.
We caught up with Fujimoto talk about the hundreds of schools in New Tech and Big Picture's networks, his work with the Right to Succeed Foundation, and what he sees as the "sin of mediocrity" in modern education.
EDUCATION DIVE: Are charters the way of the future? Why or why not?
TED FUJIMOTO: Let me put it this way: I've seen as much innovation coming from school districts around the country as I’ve seen coming from charter schools. I've also seen so many mediocre — and, quite frankly, awful — schools on both sides. The charter movement and district schools are plagued with the sin of mediocrity and then they fight about who is right.
Most of my scaling work has been with district schools. For example, most New Tech and Big Picture schools are district schools. I've also worked intensely with the charter school movement, including capacity building of many of the charter school support organizations to improve quality. A great school is a great school.
What matters is whether the container by which the school operates will allow it to implement a great school design. Just because you have a container doesn't make you great. If you were an entrepreneur, just because you can launch a C-Corp, LLC, or S-Corp doesn't make you successful.
"Charter versus district" is the wrong argument. What matters is whether the environment allows creation and sustainability of the great school design. In a number of communities, going charter is the only way to guarantee, by law and waivers, these conditions needed to sustain a viable school design — but it is on the charter groups to ensure they are using this opportunity to actually do something worthwhile inside the container.
On the other hand, school districts have in their power to create these ideal conditions to support great school designs, and they can pass policy and regulatory waivers that can withstand time. In fact, many school districts and their school boards can move faster in getting these conditions in place than most charter school authorizers. They can pass a series of policies and waivers in a few board meetings versus a year or two process to work through getting a charter approved.
I am very concerned about the charter movement but for another reason that may surprise some. In many jurisdictions, the charter authorizer teams and boards are sometimes the most bureaucratic bunch out of the public school system, which means that a charter must fit inside their box to be approved. I worry that we are creating a chartering environment where the most innovative and solid school designs can't get approved by charter authorizers and the vanilla ones are.
What are your thoughts on the new ESEA re-write?
FUJIMOTO: I think there are more positives in ESSA than negatives and a huge improvement over its predecessor. I'm for any policies that make it easier for schools and classrooms to implement personalized, deeper learning pedagogy such as project-based learning.
What I like is the recognition of the need for the creation of personalized learning environments that can support things like project-based learning, workplace learning, and internships, as well as innovative assessments that are more competency-based versus seat time. I also like the ability for states and local communities to have more power to align resources and policies to meet the needs of their communities and partner with community-based organizations.
I don't mind and think that national standards that are calibrated with international ones are needed to prevent states from "dumbing down" what kids should be able to know. But I do worry that the implementation of these standards in the classroom means pacing guides and standardized assessments, which is completely on a different planet than personalized learning. You can't have it both ways.
What innovations in education have impressed you this year?
FUJIMOTO: Successful innovations are ones that have broad impact. There are many great innovative practices and "things" that happen in schools around the country every day, but most don't last and fail to have a major impact because the system and environment they are in are toxic. Individual innovations have limited impact unless combined with a cohesively designed set of innovations to make a system.
What impresses me are two things: (a) communities that manage to change the system and their environment to be aligned and supportive of implementing innovations and (b) the groups that bring a whole-school design that bundles cohesively a system of innovations. Communities that have made significant progress include Napa County with NapaLearns, that have transformed all K-12 schools across their districts into deeper learning using the New Tech Network design.
The work of CELL (Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning) at University of Indianapolis, Innovative Schools of Delaware, and state of Arkansas continue to be great examples of organizations and agencies that have helped communities across their states cultivate conditions to support and implement deeper learning whole-school designs in partnership with whole-school replication networks. I am working with a new set of school teams that are leveraging the 20 years of learning from the first-generation replication networks.
Are there any ed tech products or companies in particular that you're watching?
FUJIMOTO: This space is so noisy with lots of products that have limited educational impact. I look for products that (a) have a pedagogical center to deeper learning; (b) help schools build a culture through strengthening relationships, communication, and collaboration; and (c) help teachers and students calibrate and assess the quality and authenticity of their learning. I'm under NDA with a few companies. Suffice it to say there is exciting next-generation work coming out in the area of integration of music and arts in learning that will blow your mind.
What's the New Tech Network, and how does it work?
FUJIMOTO: New Tech Network — along with groups like Big Picture Learning, Expeditionary Learning, and Institute for Student Achievement — are "whole-school design," deeper learning models that have carefully constructed design elements that directly address instructional practices, school culture, and systems to support.
New Tech Network has over 200 schools and is growing about 20-40 schools a year, mostly as transformed district schools and then some charter schools. Any community that wants to transform their existing schools or launch new ones can leverage nearly 20 years of experience and not try to cobble individual design elements from scratch. They provide end-to-end training, coaching and tools for teachers and administrators over 4-5 years to help communities implement their school designs with fidelity. These school designs are producing superior results across all socioeconomic groups of students in graduation rates, college persistence, and workforce skills.
Tell me about the Right to Succeed Foundation and why it's necessary.
FUJIMOTO: Nationally, only 25% of students today are receiving the education they need to qualify for a middle-class, paying job or even be hired by the U.S. military. This means 20 years from now, if this trajectory continues, 75% of Americans will not be able to pay for themselves.
It is important to transform the educational experience for the majority of American kids within the next 10 years to change this trajectory. We need to do it at scale to pass a tipping point in this transformation. What this means to me is that 30,000 schools need to be transformed.
One way to do this is to create 6,000 demonstration schools using replicable school designs that can help transform others in their communities. We are calling this the American Dream Schools initiative.
I founded Right to Succeed Foundation because when I talked to communities, parents, and educational leaders around the country, very few could articulate what a great school could be. What I heard was lots about what they didn't like.
For any transformation to take place, I think it's important that you are clear about what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against. Right To Succeed creates community and national-level awareness on what great education can look like, makes communities aware of replicable whole-school designs that will make it much easier for them to be successful in transforming their schools, and works with policymakers to build a more supportive environment in terms of regulation and resources for communities to implement these school designs with fidelity.
What are you looking forward to in education for 2016?
FUJIMOTO: With the new ESSA in place, I hope that states will use the flexibility to create policies and direct resources to support the adoption of replicable, deeper learning, whole-school designs using a powerful school culture of trust, respect, responsibility, and excellence, coupled with using project-based learning authentically tied to student interest, passions, and real-world problems. I challenge every state to produce initiatives — not to just try to fix the bottom 5% of schools, but transform a third of their schools.
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