Innovative education is only as good as the follow-through

There's a lot of rethinking going around these days, particularly where high school is concerned.

All over the country there are myriad versions of "Rethinking High School" efforts moving forward. Many have been inaugurated with great fanfare and high hopes. Some have attracted big money from high-tech tycoons and the involvement of famous people and influential organizations.

The one that's getting the most attention of late is the $50 million campaign launched by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Called XQ: The Super School Project, it aims to "completely transform the model for public high school," the New York Times reported.

The rationale for XQ, as well as for other efforts to create new blueprints for American high schools, is sound. Despite the proliferation of technology and new information about the way kids learn to guide us in our quest to improve education, the basic model for high school hasn't changed much in 100 years.

For the most part, high school classes are still designed for a teacher to stand up front while students sit facing forward, trying not to nod off during lectures and partially paralyzed by attempts to resurrect information from the dense pages of a 500-page textbook they were assigned to read the night before. Not exactly a model for setting young minds ablaze with inquiry and insight.

Now along comes XQ, touted on its website as "a movement to challenge these old definitions of school, to illuminate how stagnant our system is, and most importantly to create new thinking against entirely new models."

Powell Jobs' initiative isn't the only such tech-related venture. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates are among the most visible business leaders to devote hefty portions of their fortunes to influencing educational outcomes and breaking the cycle of failure in low-performing schools.

These efforts are worthy of praise and support, for at least these billionaires are trying to have a positive impact on our youth. That's why I really, really hate to be a bit of a Debbie Downer about all this rethinking business.

The trouble is we've heard so much of this type of revolutionary talk before, to little or no avail.

I recall attending a presentation at Newport-Mesa Unified School District headquarters, round about 15 years ago, regarding the future of high school. It was an electrifying talk, with educational specialists wowing the audience with a model for a more immersive, interactive, hands-on learning environment, enabled by smart uses of technology and embraced by teachers and administrators who would be well-trained facilitators of this vision. I walked out of the meeting thinking how wonderful it would be if it became reality.

Of course it never did — at least most of it anyway. And the district employee who organized the meeting is long gone, a victim of budget cuts.

Which points us to what are some of the biggest problems facing such reform efforts: the lack of sufficient money to implement school makeovers on a large scale, as well as a general absence of long-term commitment, organization and institutional will.

Powell Jobs' $50 million is an impressive amount for her to devote to one issue, but in reality it won't go far. XQ hasn't endorsed a specific plan, but is calling on others to submit their ideas for remaking high schools. The proposals are due Nov. 15, and a team of judges will select a handful of ideas to finance.

I have no doubt there will be some impressive and intelligent ideas put forward. We've already seen some great ideas. But in the vast, cumbersome, slow-moving bureaucratic juggernaut that is public education, going from the conceptual stage to widespread implementation has never been a strength. Added to that is the sheer difficulty many schools face trying to replicate small-scale successes in the face of daunting socio-economic issues.

Yes, we now have Common Core educational standards, still in early stages of implementation in most states, which shows us that sometimes change can happen. But remember that Common Core is a only a set of standards for what students are supposed to learn. It doesn't provide a blueprint for how kids are to be taught — that's up to individual states and school districts, some of which find themselves floundering in their attempts to implement new core-aligned curricula.

If Common Core fails, it won't be because there weren't enough good ideas or admirable intentions. It will be a result of a breakdown in translating innovations from the drawing board to mass production on the factory floor.

Does this mean that efforts like Powell Jobs' XQ project are hopeless? Of course not. Her commitment to making a difference should be applauded, and I hope others rise to the challenge.

But more attention must at some point be given to the arguably far more difficult task of implementing ideas for change that have been tried out and tested and shown to produce results.

Rethinking education is an important goal. Yet it's arguably the easiest part of a "revolution." We also need to commit to the tougher job of actually putting some of these worthy ideas to work for our kids in a widespread, comprehensive and well-supported fashion.

Now that would truly make it a revolution.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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