Experimental Schools

As the closing of the Malcolm Price Laboratory School remains in the news, Nicholas Johnson makes the case for experimental schools; schools where educational experiments can take place outside of the constraints of the usual public school bureaucracy.

Nicholas Johnson gave the final commencement address for the University of Iowa’s University Elementary and High School in 1972, noting:

Because what President Jessup [University of Iowa president who founded the lab school]  realized, as I think almost anybody knows who has ever had to deal with large bureaucratic institutions–whether it’s the military, or school systems, corporations, government agencies, whatever it is –a television network–is that it’s not really a place where genuine creativity and intellectual activity can take place. People who are hired to do a job, to carry out a mission which they do not control, may be superb at what it is they’ve been hired to do, but they simply don’t have the time, the talent or the temperament to expend a lot of effort in challenging the basic assumptions of their own institution.

Nicholas Johnson went on to observe:

Even if one is willing to concede that no justification can be offered for providing an elitist education to a privileged few Iowa boys and girls who attend the schools as students, it seems to me that teachers–at some point in their career, and for however short a time–ought to have been exposed to such a faculty and student body.

Somewhere, in the seventy-billion-dollar, barnacle-encrusted, bureaucratic industry that goes by the name of “Education,” somewhere in amongst the concrete buildings and the computers and the layers of administrators, somebody better be watching to make sure that the torch of learning has not gone out entirely.

If that is not to be the University of Iowa, so be it. We certainly have lots of company. Lab schools are closed all over the land. It’s a respectable position.

But as anybody knows who has tried to keep a camp fire going all night without a match, you can start it up again by blowing on one red hot coal, but once you are left with nothing but ashes you’re just going to be blowing dirt into your face and into the darkness.

As the legislative session winds down and we wait to see what education reform package can be agreed upon by the Iowa House and Senate, we might consider Johnson’s commencement address and ask ourselves whether, as a state, we have preserved sufficient opportunities for educational experimenting in Iowa public education?

The Branstad education reform package suggested that innovation could be driven by the Iowa Department of Education.  It recommended a $2,000,000 innovation acceleration fund–which amounts to approximately $4.22 per public school student, $58.97 per public school teacher, $1,705.03 per public school principal, or $6,644.52 per public school superintendent.  Is that enough money to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and challenge basic assumptions of the public school institution?  Is the DE uniquely capable of challenging its own basic assumptions about public education?

Are magnet schools and charter schools (expected to comply with the Iowa Core and all accountability measures) sufficiently free of bureaucracy to take on the task of being experimental schools?  Are Iowa public school districts less burdened by bureaucracy now, such that they can effectively carve out space for an experimental school?

Perhaps the DE has it all figured out.  Perhaps they have identified all the right standards and teaching methods and tests.  Perhaps they are capable of micromanaging innovation.  Perhaps all we really need for world-class public schools is to force districts to adopt DE programs and ideas with fidelity.  But as we move away from local control and towards statewide uniformity and decision-making about public (and accredited, nonpublic) schools, we might want to ask if there is still value in having experimental schools and, if so, have we really left enough space for them to exist in Iowa?

[See also the IPR news story, “What’s the big deal about Price Lab?“]