The company that invented Apple’s computer mouse is coming to New Haven to help the Achievement First charter network invent a new model of K-8 schools.
Achievement First (AF), a nationally recognized charter-school management organization headquartered in New Haven, has hired the company, IDEO, a high-powered San Francisco-based design firm, to radically reimagine the traditional school model.
AF plans to spend the next six months brainstorming new ideas with IDEO, then roll out the resulting model at two new schools that would open in the fall of 2015 in Bridgeport or New Haven, according to Dacia Toll, Achievement First’s CEO. The effort will reexamine how schools structure the school day, use technology, involve families in their children’s education.
Toll dropped that bombshell announcement Wednesday night at a joint meeting for the boards that govern its Connecticut schools in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford. In making the announcement, Toll acknowledged that the charter schools have focused too much on teaching to low-rigor standardized tests and are ready for a “disruptive” change in model.
Toll co-founded Achievement First’s flagship school, Amistad Academy, 15 years ago, then oversaw the replication of that school model into a fast-expanding network of 25 schools in Connecticut, New York City and Providence. She said Achievement First staff have been focusing hard on reading and writing, but the achievement gaps with the state remain too large, and the pace of progress too slow.
Now AF aims “to go after a new school design entirely,” Toll told board members gathered in a community room inside Amistad Academy Elementary School at 130 Edgewood Ave.
IDEO is a global consulting and design firm whose clients have included Samsung, Toyota, Proctor & Gamble and G.E. Achievement First has hired the firm to conduct a six-month research and development project, from February to July of 2014, to come up with a new design for a school. Parts of that design may be piloted in existing AF schools this fall. AF aims to open two entirely new schools in the fall of 2015 using that model, Toll said. One school would be an elementary school with grades K to 1; the other would be a middle school starting with grade 5, she said.
Because the schools are charter schools—publicly funded schools that accept public school kids by lottery and are run by private organizations under their own charters—AF would need state permission for the experimental schools. Because of “political challenges” in New York City, where a charter skeptic just replaced a pro-charter mayor, AF would seek to open the schools in Connecticut, in “Bridgeport or New Haven,” she said.
AF spokesman Mel Ochoa said he did not know the cost of the contract with IDEO. He said it is being paid for by private donations.
In its project with IDEO, AF aims to create “disruptive innovation”—just as a car company invents a hybrid car, or a scientist comes up with a “breakthrough cure,” Toll said.
“I love Achievement First. I’m proud of Achievement First. However, we also feel like there are a couple of key areas where we want to think in a more unconstrained way,” Toll said. She dubbed the effort “Greenfield”: “Imagine a green field,” with no structures on it and limitless possibilities.
Toll said she wants AF to rethink the basic components of schooling, such as the school day, class schedules, and the use of technology. She said the schools need to come up with new ways to teach kids noncognitive skills, such as teamwork and persistence, that will help them succeed in life. And AF aims to introduce “family engagement in a way that we’ve never done it before.” The effort will likely include a large investment in technology, she said.
She characterized the experiment as the next big step for an organization that seeks to constantly evolve.
In a frank concession, she said the organization previously focused too much on preparing kids for the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), the basic test of reading, math, writing and science by which the state and federal governments measured a school’s success.
“The biggest mistake we made as an organization was pitching to low-level tests,” she said.
Now, she said, Achievement First is teaching kids more higher-order thinking skills aligned with the new Common Core national standards and assessments, which are replacing Connecticut’s legacy tests. On Wednesday, she called for more dramatic change.
“I’m not sure we’re actually that innovative,” she said. “We’re trying to get someone to push us in new ways.”
Toll described IDEO as “the top design firm in the world.”
“They invented [Apple’s] computer mouse. They get far more people who approach them for work than they” can say yes to, Toll said.
Toll said IDEO would assemble a team including “some of the best experts in the field,” including one of the architects of the Common Core, to advise AF’s effort to reinvent itself.
Toll said she doesn’t have a clear picture of what the new model will be: “we’re just at the beginning of figuring out what this is.”
“We’re trying to go into this more with problems we’re trying to solve than solutions we’re trying to implement,” Toll said.
The problems include how to close literacy gaps between Achievement First students, who are mostly poor minorities, and their statewide peers; and how to help kids build “habits of success,” also known as “character development” or “non-cognitive” skills.
Achievement First has not ignored character development, Toll said. But “it’s not enough at the center of what we do. It’s always been the second-class citizen to the academic objectives.”
“We want to do much more systematic R&D [research and development]” in the area, she said. “There’s a lot of cognitive brain research out there”—including on human motivation—“that we haven’t paid enough attention to. We’re trying to say, we’re going to come up with a new school model.”
The idea met a lot of excitement, and some concern, from board members.
“This is absolutely fascinating,” said Melinda Hamilton, chair of the Amistad Academy board.
Angela Scott, an incoming member of the board that oversees Hartford’s AF schools, was skeptical.
“You’re looking at IDEO as a design expert, but it’s not their sweet spot as education curriculum,” she said. “Why them?”
“That’s a great question, and one I’m worried about, too,” Toll replied.
Toll noted that IDEO “did a whole school network in Peru,” transforming a system of rote learning into one focused on “group work and technology.”
“There’s no doubt that they’re not educational experts,” Toll said. She said she was skeptical at the outset, too. But she sat through a couple of design workshops with the group and was blown away. She said IDEO pushed her to new heights of innovative thinking.
Lankford Wade, another incoming member of AF’s Hartford school board, asked if the experiment would create an uncomfortable split, where some schools are working in an old model and others are innovating. He later elaborated that he is concerned that AF might sacrifice its current model in an effort to rush to a new one.
Toll replied that current AF staff won’t be left out. “The ideas for the new schools are going to come from all sorts of people,” including current school leaders. Plus, she said, AF aims to pilot some of the ideas in existing schools this fall.
Another board member asked Toll if the new model would require a “major investment in technology.”
“I think so,” she replied.
Toll mentioned the idea of “blended learning”—using technology to support and in some cases reorganize classroom instruction. That includes the idea of the flipped classroom, where kids watch videos at home to learn new concepts, then spend their time in the classroom working on problem sets or other projects typically assigned as homework. The method allows for more individualized help and small-group work, and less classroom time spent on lectures.
“I’m not going into it saying we’re sure it’s going to be a blended-learning school,” Toll said. But the use of more technology fits with the ideas of adding more individualized learning, and moving away from seat-time instruction to “competency-based” instruction, where kids move forward at their own pace as soon as they master certain skills, she said.
So technology will likely have “a more dominant role” in the new model, Toll said.
In a classroom-style arrangement, Toll asked board members to break into four groups to discuss the day’s news.
Recalling a simile Toll had raised earlier, Dick Ferguson (pictured), chairman of the Elm City College Prep board, raised a key difference between designing schools and designing cars. With cars, he said, there’s a chance to test-drive them and use crash-test dummies before putting them on the road.
“When you start to build a new school model,” however, “the only way you know if it’s going to work is to put real live kids in it,” Ferguson said.
He later said he supports the plan because he trusts AF to be thoughtful about its approach. He said he was just “wondering aloud” about what it means to “take this innovative model and try it out on real kids.”
Andy Boas, chairman of AF’s Bridgeport board, was more optimistic.
“Continuous improvement is the mark of a great organization,” he said.