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Smart Cities / Humble Systems

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By: Neerav Kingsland

It is tempting to believe that smart cities need "smart systems"—systems where technocrats attempt to implement the best practices of a given era; systems where government officials review the research, design strategies, and then push the bureaucracy to implement (often with mixed success).

But the limit of this model is clear. At best, it freezes innovation until the next technocratic makeover. At worst, it inhibits innovation from ever occurring.

It is humility, and not smartness, that must be the primary design principle of a smart city's educational system.

How are humble systems different? Humble systems are not designed to implement the current best practice - rather, they are designed to nurture an ecosystem that allows innovation to flourish.

What does a humble education system look like?

Humble education systems should be built upon three principles:

First, educators must be able to form their own organizations to operate schools. Educators should not simply be given school site autonomy. Or increased decision making power. They should be given the power to start and scale effective their own organizations. Entrepreneurs are the source of innovation. And if we do not trust educators to be entrepreneurs, then, at the end of the day, we simply do not trust our educators to innovate.

Second, families must be given choice amongst these educator run schools. The best entrepreneurs develop solutions to solve the needs of others. But if families have no power - if they have no choice - it is very difficult to test and scale solutions that can meet their needs. By banning choice, we are implicitly saying that every student can thrive in the same kind of school, which is another way of saying that it is only scale, and not innovation, that is important. Forced assignment of schools is antithetical to innovation and differentiation.

Lastly, government must regulate the system for both performance and equity. Changing the structure of public schooling should not make it any less public. Both the public good and taxpayer dollars remain at stake. Government must ensure that only the best educator run organizations are allowed to expand - and it must revoke the school operation privileges of those organizations who do not serve students well. Additionally, it must ensure that all schools meet the needs of our most at-risk students.

Let educators run schools. Let families choose amongst the schools. Ensure that the government regulates for performance and equity. These are the principles of a humble education system. These are foundational components of a smart city.

Why are humble systems so rare in education? Humble systems are rare because their creation requires a massive shift of power away from a bureaucracy and toward educators and families. And if there is anything that those in power tend not to do with frequency, it is give up power.

Our only hope is the next generation of education leaders will be better than the current leaders. Our current leaders, many of whom are reformers, fought their way up the system with massive amounts of grit and perseverance.

And then they got to the top they said: "Now that I'm in charge I can finally make this system work."

It will be up to the next generation to say: "Now that I'm in charge I can hand power back to educators and families."

It is only through handing power back that we will enable the innovation that our children desperately deserve.

Neerav Kingsland is New Schools New Orleans CEO and manages the organization toward achieving its goals in the areas of citywide strategic leadership, school development, and human capital. He has appeared throughout the country to detail the impact of New Orleans reforms and frequently writes on education policy in multiple national blogs, and is a current participant in the Pahara-Aspen Education Fellows Program. Neerav has worked at NSNO since its inception and is a graduate of Tulane University and Yale Law School.

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