LOOKS LIKE SCHOOL: INNOVATION AND ITS AUDIENCES (PART 1 of 3)

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I had a personal revelation—I’ll get to it in a bit—the other day as I was trying to explain to someone my day job as a college counselor. Few positions in a school seem to be quite as clear in the purpose as college guidance, and to a large degree the whole business—not the particular way each case may go but rather the structure within which each student’s college search-apply-choose process moves from our school and the kid’s head into the hands of a college admission committee, proceeding in an orderly way toward a decision—is pretty cut and dried.
The media remind everyone, all the time, of what a strong application should be like—good grades, rigorous courses, high test scores, revelatory essay, evidence of passion and compassion—and of the long odds facing even the strongest applications for the most competitive schools. The better kids do, the higher their aspirations; the higher their aspirations, the more selective the colleges. It’s a vicious circle, but it’s “the way things are,” at least for now.
What a “strong” college (or next school, for that matter) application is supposed to contain is pretty straightforward, too, and of course a part of it is some information on the nature of the applicant’s school—usually in the form of a pro formadocument known as the “School Profile.” Updating ours is a task that absorbs many of my idle hours early each September, making sure what we say about ourselves is informative to the colleges as well as being complete and factually accurate.
In general the School Profile is designed to give even a relatively inexperienced admission officer in a college that knows nothing about our school a snapshot of who we are: our mission, values, special features, overall curriculum structure, and the, er, quality of our students. Many schools include lots of statistics: grade distributions by subjects, standardized test scores, and virtually all underscore the “we’re a real school and here’s who our kids are” message by including on the profile a list of the colleges to which recent graduates have matriculated. My guess is that admission officers use this list as a quick and dirty gauge of a school’s academic cred: Do they talk a lot about arts? Well, do they send kids to art schools? If they tout their STEM programs, do they send kids to colleges that emphasize or specialize in those areas? Do they claim amazing academic “excellence,” and then send kids to the prestige colleges that are associated with that notion, however itchy the whole idea of looking for You Know Which names in a college list might make you?
On the whole, there has traditionally been a big part of the college thing that insistently nudges even the most thoughtful educators toward the comfortable known, a kind of regression to the mean that works against the idea of the novel, the anomalous, the quirky—the unfamiliar. The definition of “unfamiliar” would include, of course, the innovative.
As a college counselor a big chunk of my job is to explain our school, including its innovative practices, of which there are a good solid handful. The trick, then, or really the art, since there’s no trickery intended, is to help colleges see our novel or unique practices in ways that look like, or in some way relate to, the familiar.
For example, many of our students participate in the NuVu program, of which I have written before. It’s studio learning, design thinking, real-world problem-solving, collaboration, thinking, creating, testing—all kinds of things that those who understand the program “get” and that are certainly buzzwords of “21st-century learning.” But how to explain this? Turns out that a couple of reality TV shows—Project Runway and Junkyard Wars work best for me—offer simple analogies: as on those programs, NuVu kids identify a problem, are given constraints in developing solutions, create solutions while coaches offer feedback and critique (think Tim Gunn putting his finger under his jaw and either saying, “I’m worried” or “Make it work!” as he offers specific suggestions to contestants), build, test, improve, and finally show off their solution and present their learning to critical experts. Ah, that’s what NuVu’s like!  Well, close enough to see how the educational process there works.
The more intensive the innovation, the greater the need to explain it well. For some years I’ve been involved with the Independent Curriculum Group, which began as a kind of mutual support group for schools at the point of ending Advanced Placement programs but which now focuses on helping schools develop effective cultures of teacher-created curriculum and assessment. Ten years ago dropping AP seemed to require unimaginably vast explanations, or so many schools thought.
It turned out, though, that for many of the schools considering ending AP programs—which appear to many people, or at least to Jay Mathews, to be the very epitome of “school” as it should be—the elaborate explanations were not needed by colleges. We learned that colleges were pretty good at understanding why a particular school’s mission or complementary strengths made an AP program either inappropriate or redundant. Colleges even told schools that the lack of an AP program—if the school could offer something better, more challenging, and more appropriate—could even be a positive differentiating factor for applicants. Huh. We hadn’t seen that one coming, but schools were happy to test that proposition, with positive results.
The challenge of many kinds of innovation—movement toward more project- or problem-based learning, interdisciplinary study, various kinds of blended or other tech-heavy models—is that they don’t always “look like school.” The revelation with which I started this post many paragraphs ago is that the college counselor in me sometimes represents a kind of cautious, even conservative perspective, and that this perspective is sometimes at odds with my curiosity about and passion for all the exciting ideas and innovations—with a capital I or maybe a small i followed by a capital something else—that are rocking the educational world. I’m caught between my need to make sure that I can make new ideas “look like school” to my college audience and my sometimes giddy exhilaration about ideas that may not look much at all like school as we know it.
I take the lessons that schools learned about dropping (or not—it’s not a good idea for every school, certainly) AP programs and realize that devotees of all the kinds of disruptive innovation hurtling toward us need to have faith that there is fertile soil for new ideas even in the most apparently hidebound of college admission offices. Change can happen, and at least our college market can accept it.
But innovators have work to do to make this happen; it’s not just about new ideas being good because they’re not the old ideas. There needs to be a case—an evidence-based case, with data or at least a solidly argued rationale with clear bases in values and ideals and practical examples to back it up. There has to be a clear presentation of real learning goals and how those goals will be achieved, not just strident repetitions of “this new thing is better because the old way was all about the Industrial Age.” It doesn’t even need to “look like school,” as long as it’s clear how the new practice accomplishes the best of what “school” accomplishes—in terms of students’ cognitive development, acquisition of skills and habits of mind, and development of character, values, and community sensibility.
Done well, and most importantly communicated clearly in its purposes and described accurately in its nature, even innovation that doesn’t look like school can be understood, accepted, and even celebrated by colleges; they are not quite the problem that nay-sayers (sometimes hopefully) often throw them up as being. Colleges tend to understand that there are a whole lot of ways of educating kids, and that these ways are both proliferating and changing as we in the K-12 world think harder, learn more, and acquire new tools. We—and that includes Your Humble Scribe—need to worry less about what looks like school and have more faith in the possibilities that come with worrying about what school should look like.
I’ll have a go at the question of other audiences—families and prospective families; faculties—in future posts in this series. 

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