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Four Frighteningly Ambitious Education Experiments for 2014

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Today marks the third birthday party of 4.0 Schools. It's hard to believe that 4.0 is only three years old given all the organizations they've incubated, lives they've transformed, and impact they've had on the NOLA and the national ecosystem. I'm thrilled to have Matt Candler, CEO and founder of 4.0 Schools, guest posting today.

By: Matt Candler

I am a big fan of Paul Graham's writing, especially his list of frighteningly ambitious startup ideas - big problems that will take incredible persistence to tackle. With that in mind, here are some experiments I'd like to see someone try in education next year. I think we'd learn a lot about how to make frighteningly better schools.

Set up skunkworks in No Excuses schools.

I challenge the nation's best charter school operators to invest 20% of your money—and your top 20% talent—on radical reworks of your current models. I'm not talking about "going blended." I'm talking about what Apple's Jony Ive calls "very experimental [stuff], material that the world is not quite ready for."

Unfortunately, the ethos of the No Excuses movement has been "love us because we make old-school school suck less than our predecessors did." This manifests in statements like, "It is isn't rocket science, its just hard work." Well, guess what? Our kids need us to build them some rockets. The 100-year-old school model we all keep accepting as our canvas is not what kids need.

That attitude and the incremental approach to innovation that goes with it would not fly in any genuinely competitive industry. Imagine what school reformers could do if they stopped spending energy defending their better execution of the wrong model and invested in what's next? Skunkworks aren't the only way, but they seem to be working well for people like Apple, Google, Amazon, the Military, WalMart, even 10 Downing Street.

Start low-cost private schools in the US.

I challenge someone to start something like Bridge in the US. Bridge runs high quality primary schools that cost an average of $5/month. Their first school launched in Kenya in 2009.

Michael Goldstein's one of the smartest, most curious people in education today. The founder of MATCH Education now runs the academic team at Bridge. I love reading what he's learning because he's forced to ask "What will it cost?" at every turn. And that makes him more creative.

"Creativity loves constraints," says Marissa Meyer, head of Yahoo and former head of new products at Google. If Michael and his team can provide quality options to families who earn less than $2/day, what would happen if someone rethought everything about school here and took that to families who can afford even more? Imagine what we'd learn about our current model if all parents had real options they could afford?

Put coders in public schools.

I challenge someone to do Code for America in our public schools.

We've made progress in 2013 to make teacher voices louder (hat-tip EdSurge), but edtech is still being done to teachers, not with them. Putting coders in real schools would let teachers be drivers, architects, crap-detectors for edtech. They could get down to business, defining and solving acute problems the way Code for America folks do for government.

We'd get more kids and teachers coding. Coders could show teachers how agile and lean methods work, how they help you iterate and listen better, how they teach you how to fail fast and debug what you've built.

Imagine what we'd learn from an experiment like this - 1,000 coders in schools, rebooting mindsets, teaching kids and teachers to code, and solving acute pain points inside schools? In relatively short order - a decade or two - agile and lean methods have transformed the software industry. How fast would it take to bring agile and lean to teaching?

Pods of parents quit private schools and go out on their own.

I challenge a group of private school parents to quit the school for a year, pool their tuition, and hire the best teacher in the school to teach their kids 24/7. I double-dog-dare a gutsy principal to try this with some of her own families.

Most private schools aren't any more innovative than public schools. One way to get private schools off their butts is to encourage parents to build their own schools. What would we learn if a group of parents got together and did this? Say 5 families with ten kids. Bring your own device. That'd be $150K-$250K of tuition. Pay the teacher $65-100K, and give her $10-25K to spend on software, other stuff. You get 1:10 ratio, customized support and you save 50%. They get creative with space, maybe rotate, maybe use the library, maybe a local college gives them room.

I'll donate space tomorrow in 4.0 to anyone who wants to try this in New Orleans. Imagine what we'd learn if parents started pooling resources and hacking away at the traditional notion of school by competing directly?

That'd be frightening.

But what if it worked?

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Matt Candler is Founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, a community of curious people building the future of school, one frightening idea at a time. 16 new ventures and school designs came to life at 4.0 in 2013. Matt's at @mcandler on twitter.

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