Future of Learning

Making room for grassroots change

Teachers may be key to education innovation, but they need support from the top

In math teacher Danielle Bosse’s classroom, three students take assessments (foreground) while their classmates learn and practice different math skills.

The Northern Cass School District in rural North Dakota is doing away with grade levels with the state’s blessing.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist turned education philanthropist, is convinced the U.S. education system needs to change. But he doesn’t want to force it. He spent the 2015-2016 school year traveling to schools in all 50 states and he discovered that teachers, when trusted and supported, often innovate on their own. The method of transforming K-12 schools that he advocates in his latest book, What Schools Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America, is of the grassroots variety. Small steps lead to big change, he says.

Dintersmith points to North Dakota as a place where the people at the top of the state leadership hierarchy are making room for schools to innovate at the local level. He has spent a fair amount of time in the state since his nationwide tour, putting a portion of his fortune toward grants and statewide efforts to encourage innovation.

Dintersmith supported a statewide education summit hosted by Governor Doug Burgum, a former software executive who is no stranger to the innovation economy. Burgum has made transforming education one of five strategic initiatives of his first term in office and has encouraged the grassroots nature of education innovation.

One place where that is playing out is in the rural Northern Cass School District, which plans to abolish grade levels entirely by 2020, allowing students to customize their path to graduation and move through the curriculum at their own pace. (Details of the district’s plans can be found in this Hechinger Report story.)

The district seems energized by the challenge. Cory Steiner, the superintendent, said he is experiencing the most exciting part of his 19-year career in education. And the plan is possible thanks to an education innovation bill that Burgum signed into law in 2017 following strong bipartisan support in the state legislature. The law allows districts to apply for freedom from state education requirements, such as seat time and traditional course sequencing, through an innovation plan. Northern Cass was the first district to apply.

Related: What’s school without grade levels?

Steiner said the opportunity in North Dakota right now is unique because both Burgum and the state superintendent of public instruction, Kirsten Baesler, are “extremely supportive of changing the entire system – not just tinkering but transforming.”

The education innovation bill “takes off the shackles” for school districts, Steiner said, and allows them to be creative.

That’s exactly what schools all across the country need, Dintersmith argues. Every state has innovative teachers, he said, who already know how to help students succeed in the world they’ll enter after high school. The key is enticing more teachers to try to innovate, too.

“What if we just start paying attention to what’s working,” he said, “and be excited about it and, in their own pace and in their own way, encourage teachers to try this?”

Dintersmith’s website, innovationplaylist.org, lists 32 steps teachers can take in the classroom to innovate. (North Dakota has its own version here.) Each step takes as little as 15 minutes, which Dintersmith hopes is a short enough time commitment for teachers to consider. And if it works, he adds, maybe they’ll think about doing it more often. If it doesn’t, no harm, no foul.

But teachers need permission to try things that might fail, and they need support to attempt something transformative. That’s why, Dintersmith says, backing from the top is critical – even if grassroots change is the goal.

This story about education innovation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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