Educators and start-up teams bring passion to their work. OKRs and a late 20th-century school reform model can help us harness that passion and create powerful innovation in schools. Image by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Reinventing Education: Lessons From A Start-Up

Would you go to a hospital that was still operating as it was 100 years ago, or even 10 years ago?

Would you be satisfied with a car using 1970 technology?

Why would you send your child to a school that looks like the school your grandparents attended?

When we recruited parents to AltSchool Max Ventilla always asked why parents would settle for schools that look and operate like those of a century ago. As a lifelong educator, I recognized the truth in his description of schools, and it made me uncomfortable. Throughout my career, I have worked for change and had grown tired of tweaking current practices in the hopes of achieving better results. I longed for innovation, new ways of designing and implementing learning experiences and new ways of defining success but I learned over and over that schools are built for stability, not innovation. I joined AltSchool because I was tired of the timid approach to change I found in independent schools and sick of the top-down, coercive mandates I saw in public and charter schools. Since AltSchool was founded five years ago, many public, charter, and independent schools have tackled innovation. Many are building models for personalized learning, redesigning curriculum and adopting technology to support mastery-based, learning. It is exhilarating to see the beginnings of an authentic transformation. Schools must innovate with speed and agility, attributes associated with successful start-ups. But the innovation we need in education will not come from start-ups, even those building great education technology. Educators must lead the messy, challenging work. Innovative schools need systems for setting goals, measuring progress, and ensuring continuous improvement. They need OKRs, objectives and key results, a process for executing on audacious goals that I used during my time at AltSchool. Before schools begin developing goals and identifying key results, there must be a unity of purpose and a culture that empowers teachers to make decisions, take risks and hold themselves accountable for results. Accelerated Schools, a late 20th century model for school reform, successfully built a unified, positive and empowering school culture but often failed to achieve sustainable innovation. By adopting the best of the Accelerated Schools model and adapting OKRs for use in schools, educators can discover, test and spread innovative practices.

Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

When a young Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi executive John Scully to join Apple, he knew that people need a compelling reason why they should sign on for the uncertainty of a new venture. Start-up founders recruit top talent by sharing their passion, vision and, most importantly, why that vision is essential. Levin knew that people become teachers because they are passionate about changing the world, one child, one class, at a time. He also recognized their passion as an untapped resource. The most compelling feature of the Accelerated School model was that it brought all of a school’s educators together to construct and fulfill a vision for the success of the entire school. Launching AS was an exhilarating time when teachers, administrators, and parents came together to examine the why of school, celebrate their strengths and develop a shared vision. In Accelerated Schools and organizations using OKRs passion for a shared purpose is the launchpad for defining objectives, the what we want to accomplish

So you’re passionate? How passionate? What actions does your passion lead you to do? If the heart doesn’t find a perfect rhyme with the head, then your passion means nothing.

In his 2018 TEDTalk about OKRs’ Doerr played a video of Bono endorsing the system and explaining, in the above quote, that passion without action leads to nothing. Objectives, the O in OKRs, set the focus for action. In start-ups and seasoned organizations, the executive team selects objectives that are significant, concrete and action-oriented. Doerr says good objectives are a vaccine against fuzzy thinking. In my work with schools, public and independent, I often encounter fuzzy thinking. Educators take many decisive actions each day but have little experience analyzing how their work aligns with their colleagues in addressing the schoolwide challenges. In Accelerated Schools, teachers struggled with the model’s whole-school process for setting priorities. Schools tackling innovation need a leadership team of three to five members who work closely with the head administrator just as executive teams work with CEOs. This will not be a return to the hierarchical governance structure resented by teachers if the group includes classroom teachers who have innovated in their classrooms and earned the respect and trust of the faculty.

Figure One: Except for the word mastery and the phrase “co-design their learning paths,” these were the objectives for the AltSchool beta classroom.
Figure Two: Schoolwide Objective #1 and Key Results
Figure Three: Mastery Learning Working Group OKRs

Educator, entrepreneur, boundary crosser, community builder, advocate for learners of all ages.