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Why seemingly weird educational innovations matter to the future of learning
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Just as genetic variation can save a species, there is value in letting parents and schools experiment with seemingly odd notions, in acknowledging the "unknown unknowns" of education reform. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Fifteen years of education reformers trying to enforce conformity has demonstrated that there is something to educational biodiversity. Just as genetic variation can save a species, there is value in letting parents and schools experiment with seemingly odd notions, in acknowledging the "unknown unknowns" of education reform. Pushing the range of what is possible can help hone today's mainstream and tomorrow's innovations.

The year began with reformers doggedly defending standardized testing and federal control. After furious pushback from teacher unions and parents, it ended with a bipartisan new education bill that returned significant power to the states and school districts.

I spent that year of upheaval exploring some obscure but intriguing alternative approaches to education, fascinated by the idea that we don't, collectively, know nearly as much about what works as we suppose.

I went to Chicago to consider a school built on the Sudbury Model, in which kids make and enforce the rules, interact with classmates of all ages, and decide what they want to study. The Tallgrass Sudbury School was warm, personable and intriguing, and some of the kids I met clearly benefited from the lower stress levels. But it's clearly no panacea, and kids without strong family enrichment may not find it here.

While in Chicago, I also looked at a much more structured model, the Cristo Rey network of Catholic schools, where low-income, mostly minority students pay their own tuition by working one day a week in white-collar businesses around the city.

I was stunned when I first walked into the school that started this movement. The hallways were quiet, even at class-changing time. The well dressed students looked far more mature than their age. I immediately sensed that difference was their work experience, and I confirmed that in interviews.

Most recently, I also considered a Florida middle school, a public magnet school that teaches only boys. It's the fraternal twin of an all-girls middle school in the same district. There are 12 magnet middle schools in Tampa, and the two single-gender schools get more applications than the other 10 combined.

I was struck by the disconnect between educational elites, who insist that single-gender schools are an irrational anachronism, and the parents, students and teachers who, according to survey data, overwhelmingly love them.

That disconnect reminded me of a famous quote from William F. Buckley:

"I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory," Buckley once said, "than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University."

Obviously, these idiosyncratic education models are not silver bullets. The school of the future is not going to be a single-gender school where students study whatever they want and spend one day a week in the workforce. But there is something to having options, if only to challenge the supposed wisdom and make the world a more interesting place.