Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Xtreme Innovation

February 22, 2012

Imagine a gauge for innovation in public schools – a meter that indicates the nature and intent of any given reform project’s theory of change. Everything the needle points to on the left side of the meter is about improving performance within the prevailing model of public education in the U.S. (Which is to say, the one we’ve had for the past eighty years or so.)

Everything on the right side is about challenging the model itself. These innovation initiatives presume that in order to achieve new, ambitious goals for public education (high outcomes for all students, affordably), we need to do more than fine-tune performance within the current model. We need to fundamentally re-imagine it.

Last fall, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) issued our latest of three waves of “re-invention” challenges to secondary and postsecondary educators and innovators that push the needle on that meter as far to the right as it can go. Wave III will provide $12 million in grants over the course of this year to new-model schools and college degree programs that fundamentally re-design how students learn, how schools and institutions enable that learning and allocate resources to support it, and how their approaches can multiply virally.

NGLC made it clear where applicants should locate themselves on that innovation meter. We asked for models that (among other things) would use blended, technology-enabled approaches to personalize student learning; pursue outcomes that integrate and emphasize deeper learning; replace seat-time requirements with competency; and make all of this rapidly scalable and affordable through next generation financial and expansion models.

We issued the challenge and then literally held our breath. Are there innovators out there who are ready to push this far?

The answer is yes. Last week NGLC announced our first cycle of Wave III funding: $750,000 to five developers of new school models at the middle and/or high school level. Here are three observations about what they’re seeking to accomplish: 

  1. They are completely re-imagining students’ experience of “school.” The approaches the new grantees are taking might be considered Blended Learning 2.0.  All of these developers cited valuable lessons they’d learned from studying the pioneers in this space. Their schools will integrate elements of project-based, online, personalized, group, and anytime/everywhere learning, together with strong links to postsecondary education, to generate new models that (in the words of one of the Wave III applicants) “stand on the shoulders of giants.
  2. They are applying technology-enabled strategies to challenge the status quo in school design.  One California grantee will scrap the traditional school calendar by opening its doors to students ten hours per day, seven days per week, year-round. Students will contract individually with the school to create their own personalized schedules and conduct a substantial portion of their learning outside of the school’s walls.  A New Jersey grantee will use working-world learning environments and processes, all on a technology platform like those used by business and industry today, to create learning experiences for students that connect deeply to the environment outside of school.
  3. They are pushing the envelope on financial modeling and scalability. These innovations, as promising as they are, will mean little if they require supports or operating conditions that are not readily scalable. The NGLC grantees are thinking as deeply about these challenges as they are about their learning models, so that viable, viral scaling is embedded as a central element in their school’s DNA.

There is more to come. NGLC just closed our second application cycle for Wave III and will announce an additional set of secondary grantees (and our first set of postsecondary awards) later this spring.

These are early-stage models, of course. There is much work to be done before these innovative schools open their doors to students. But for anyone harboring even the slightest concern about whether our nation can meet its educational goals via traditional left-side-of-the-meter approaches, we’ve seen a glimpse into the future and the needle is headed in a promising direction.

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