Call for New School Models Based on the Theory of Change


The NewSchools Venture Fund[1] released a report titled, Dissatisfied but Optimistic, which outlines the need for and a path toward developing new models of school. While academic success is still a desired outcome for public education, the report writers advocate that students need more than that to realize their potential. They also need “critical habits of success such as self-awareness, agency, drive, curiosity and empathy.” Schools must be designed to help young people develop a full array of skills that will help them find success in college or career.

While they are not the originators of this idea, the report writers point out that the traditional school model was designed to fit the individual into the system. The new model needs to fit the system to the individual.

The schools of the future should:

  • Start with learning goals that are broad, deep, and interdisciplinary across academic, cognitive and social-emotional aims; and, hold the highest of expectations for all students to meet these ambitious goals.
  • Give students the freedom and power to own their learning, choosing the pace and types of learning activities that work best for them, in service of their goals.
  • Personalize the learning experience to meet every student based on where she is, what she needs, and her goals and strengths
  • Equip parents to be active partners with the school and with their children.
  • Foster a community of togetherness, with diverse groups of students, educators, and parents constantly sharing and working together.

How do they recommend we accomplish these goals?

  • By engaging deeply with families and students to understand their needs and aspirations and work with them to design schools that work better for students.
  • By reimagining the roles of educators, with different people wearing different hats based on specialized strengths or expertise, combining in different ways at different times.
  • By rethinking the use of time and space, to break free of traditional boundaries and constraints.
  • By leveraging technology as a backbone that enables all of the above and enhances – not replaces – human interactions.
  • By embracing continuous learning through rapid iteration, refining and redesigning as we learn more.

Incorporating the Theory of Change

The report adopts the theory of change for its recommendations by focusing on the innovators and early adopters who will take public education to the tipping point.

Here is what that model looks like:

  • Innovators: IF visionary teams of educators and communities have sufficient time, design talent, and money to innovate and iterate, THEN they will build breakthrough models of schools.
  • Early adopters: IF models a) create dramatically better outcomes on a broad definition of student success, and b) are designed to be easy for others to implement, THEN early adopters, with modest design, implementation, and financial support will take up these models in their own school networks.
  • Community demand: IF those models resonate with what parents want for their children and prove results, THEN they will demand the experiences provided by these new models of schooling resulting in stronger outcomes for all students.
  • Favorable policy conditions: IF policies are conducive to new models (e.g., competency-based approaches to credit, accountability system based on individual growth in academic knowledge and skills rather than absolute proficiency, as well as … collaboration, communication, agency, self-management, etc.), THEN more and more schools will have the ability to adopt new models.
  • Virtuous cycle: IF all of the above happen in continuous, reinforcing cycles, THEN over the next 3-5 years, we will see unprecedented progress in driving and spreading breakthrough school models.

Unlike others who have called for new education models for public schools, the NewSchools Venture Fund offers a methodology that can broaden and sustain the kind of change we need in public schools. Their ideas provide a wider platform of innovation and sustainability than our current one-dimensional approach of changing standards or focusing on individual curriculum areas such as reading and math.

For a deeper dive into the supporting research and details of the report’s recommendations and the authors’ personal commitments to creating change, check out this fascinating report.

[1] NewSchools Venture fund is a nonprofit philanthropy organization working to transform public education.