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Ted Kolderie, nationally honored education innovator, explains why school change is so hard

Patience and tolerance for early failure in “breakthrough innovations” are essential, he says. “The first airplanes, automobiles, computers certainly were not [high quality]. But rapidly the good innovations improve.”

Last month, while the state government shutdown dominated headlines, a gentleman from St. Paul by the name of Ted Kolderie traveled to Colorado to receive a prestigious award from the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan organization of states that serves as a brain trust for information about education and policy.

The James Bryant Conant Award recognizes individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to education. It places him in the company (PDF)  of Thurgood Marshall, Marian Wright Edelman, Fred Rogers and a host of state governors. 

All of which is a tremendous undersell.

Currently the co-founder and head of an education policy think tank called Education Evolving, Kolderie has been a reporter at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (back when it had an “and”) the head of the Citizens League and a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

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Beyond all of that, he is a convener of big conversations about big ideas. He writes, he reads, he gets other big thinkers into the same room, tosses a topic at them and then literally records what they come up with. Weeks or months after a Kolderie-led brainstorming session, attendees can expect to receive minutes as a gentle prodding to turn talk to action.

He helped launch charter schools
He is also one of the people who designed and drafted Minnesota’s first-of-its-kind charter school law and a driving force behind the creation of similar laws in 25 other states.

“A short paper Kolderie wrote in 1990, ‘The States Will Have to Withdraw the Exclusive,’ [PDF] though not the first publication about chartering, is regarded by many as the founding document of the contemporary charter movement,” ECS noted in a press release (PDF) announcing the award.

This might suggest to you that Kolderie is a proponent of a particular kind of school, or a partisan in the ongoing debate about the merits of charters vs. mainline public schools. What he really is, is a proponent of innovation in all forms. Chartering, as he told the ECS, “was always more about strategy than about school.”

Or, as he said in an interview after he returned home from the ceremony, “People want to know whether a charter school is better than a district school, which to me is essentially like asking whether eating out is better than eating at home. It depends. What is it we’re eating? 

Kolderie amplified on this in his acceptance speech: “Previously policy had sought to engineer improvement by driving change into an inert system. Today, still, the dominant notion of reform is of outsiders working to change traditional school; ‘doing improvement.’

“Progress has been slow. After decades of effort, proficiency remains low, a quarter of the students quit, half the new teachers leave within five years, and the gaps in achievement remain embarrassingly wide.

“Clearly it is hard to get districts and schools to change the essentials of what they do and how they do it. So perhaps it will be better to be strategic, to think instead how to cause the districts and schools to do improvement themselves: on their own initiative, in their own interest and from their own resources.

“A wise businessman in Minnesota used to ask, helpfully: ‘Is improvement something you do, or something that happens if you do the fundamentals right?’ Chartering was a big step toward getting the fundamentals right — by opening K-12 to innovation. It was always more about strategy more than about school.

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“A charter school is not a kind of school — in terms of what students read, see, hear and do. The laws let those organizing the school try whatever model they wish. It is an opportunity for innovation.”

Let’s pause on this last point. It’s true that, on the whole, students at charters do not outperform their peers at traditional schools. But it is also true, at least in the Twin Cities, that the majority of the schools that are making eye-popping progress on closing the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps are either charter schools or public schools that, not unlike charters, basically tore themselves down to the studs and started over.

This space has played host to no end of stories about the innovations that have made those schools successful, the longer school days and years, the strong cultures, skills “scaffolding” by nimble teachers, expectations of success for every pupil.

But innovation, as envisioned by Kolderie, means something much larger.

Three arenas ripe for innovation
At the moment, he sees three arenas that are particularly ripe for innovation. The first is different approaches to learning. “Largely, this means personalizing learning to improve motivation,” he told ECS members. “Excellence requires effort, and effort usually requires motivation.

“Traditional school is hardly built to maximize motivation. And motivation is clearly not the starting-point for mainline reform today.”

Here he envisions technology playing a role in providing for a wealth of opportunities for personalization, but he also modestly suggests getting rid of the concept of adolescence.

“It has turned the years between 11 and 21 into an artificial period in which young people, denied adult responsibilities, are told basically that success in school is the only route to success in life,” he said. “When given serious responsibilities early, young people do remarkable things.”

Hand in glove with this comes his belief that the second arena with potential for explosive innovation is the way in which schools are organized. To this end, Education Evolving is working with a number of schools that are literally owned by teacher co-operatives.

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“Enlarging teacher roles would help with the ‘teacher-quality’ problem,” he said. “We will attract and hold good people in teaching only if teaching becomes a really good job, and career, for its people.

“And bringing together authority and accountability in the school offers a way out of the conflict with the unions. Conventional reform looks to management to impose accountability. But we are now seeing schools organized as partnerships where teachers accept accountability for school success since they control what matters for school success.

“So there is potentially an important deal in this innovation: trading authority in return for accountability.”

Redefining ‘achievement’
Lastly, Kolderie suggested that policymakers need to broaden their definition of achievement, by which he means not just letting go of our mania for standardized test scores but also the basis on which we declare an experiment a success.

“At the start, breakthrough innovations usually are not high-quality,” he said. “The first airplanes, automobiles, computers certainly were not.

“But rapidly the good innovations improve. (This might be where we are with online learning today.) It will take patience, and a tolerance for failure not visible in the orthodoxy about ‘quality’ today.”

In closing, Kolderie offered a few critical remarks about the way national policymakers — prone as they are to thinking of charters as an education reform in and of themselves, and not a legal document allowing the birth of a new school — propose to encourage innovation. Congress and the Obama administration, he suggested, should hand more real authority to state governments.

“There might be a chance today to reconsider the concept of national policy into which we’ve been drifting, with the national government taking the lead, using requirements attached to its grants and aids to leverage state action,” he said. “At the moment, Washington might be inclined to step back a bit. If it does, then the states have an opportunity to step forward — taking the initiative as they did with the system-reform we call chartering …

“Public education exists in state law,” he added. “Its design can be changed only by changing state law. So legislatures and governors hold the key to system reform.

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“Nothing in the Constitution limits the president to making proposals only to the Congress, which cannot reach state law. Nothing prohibits the president from making to the states proposals for action by the states.

“Perhaps next year the Education Commission of the States might invite the president to do just that.”