7 Ways Outsider Innovators Can Make Schools Better

After two years immersed in education policy and advocacy, I can say that everything about it — teaching all students, evaluating teachers, preparing children for a productive and fulfilling life — is complicated. For those outside of the system, it is a struggle to figure out how to engage and support public schools.

For millennials who define themselves as innovators and want to fix the big problems, it’s infuriating when it seems we can’t even get a foothold in the system. Here’s some advice, from a young person who wants to see change, isn’t a professional educator, and believes in access and opportunity for all kids.

1. Start reading

And diversify your portfolio. Don’t just read the Washington Post and New York Times (although they definitely have good education sections). Read Education Week and Stateline’s education section, check out the Hechinger Report and glance at the education section on the Huffington Post.

Read through some posts on Lily Eskelsen's blog “Lily’s Blackboard.” Google Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, and Randy Turner. Generally, take some time to learn. If you have an idea or come up with something innovative, that’s just the first step. The more knowledge you possess, the more refined your idea will become.

If you want to talk about education policy with someone, pull from your expansive reading list and make sure you know your facts. If you are an education technology person, for example, keep in mind that many schools (particularly in more rural areas) still don’t have broadband access or enough computers. If you don’t begin a discussion of education technology by keeping facts like these in mind, it will be very hard to solve the problems of the kids who really need help.

2. A word of caution

 Those who are in the best position to hear and help you implement your idea are often those that are going to be skeptical of your enthusiasm, especially if you lack any background experience. This especially applies to those of you who did Teach for America. Yes, there is value in those experiences, but your experience is relatively limited to the situation you were in and it is hardly representative of the broader landscape.

Basically, If you really want to plug in and be engaged in your community or directly with a school, take it slow and demonstrate a willingness to learn.

3. Keep an open mind

Don’t think of the education professionals working in the school and district as the status quo. Not that I’m “defending” the status quo; there are some individuals that may be sub-par or that may not belong in the field, but for each of them there are dozens of others that some of the most committed and hardworking individuals you can imagine.

4. Investigate

Don’t assume that what you read in the media is the full story or even accurate. Even if you’re not a numbers person, learn more about the statistics cited. Read critically and investigate. Who owns the news outlet, or the paper? Who funded the report or publication or event? Who funded someone’s race for school board? Who funded the tests? Who writes the textbooks?  Who donated to the legislator sponsoring the bill? And look at their full bios; we are, as they say, the sum of our experiences.

5. Think critically

Assess stories of perceived failure and success. How are they failing, or succeeding, in what ways? Do a little investigating, go look at the state departments of education and see what their data says.

If schools failed, it may be because one demographic (English Language Learners or special education students) didn’t meet the testing requirements. I’m not saying we shouldn’t expect better, but labeling a school as failing is a counter-productive (and largely demoralizing) step. If you are an innovator, take the label off that school and consider what can be done about that particular challenge.

6. Reconsider innovation

Take a minute to consider how you define innovation. My definition is that your idea doesn’t have to be completely original, but it does have to be soundly researched, applicable to the situation, and as practical as possible. Make sure your idea aligns with the values and outcomes you’re hoping to foster and create.

And keep in mind that there are a lot of great ideas and models already out there. Sometimes the crucial part is spreading awareness, asking questions, and drawing important connections between school (or district) needs and available options. Education is primarily local, so be careful about the way you define scaling up as innovative. District-level initiatives are important and district policy is critical.

7. The takeaway

Get involved, and remember that it's complicated.

If you have a kid in school, make sure to join the PTA. If you work for a community organization, make sure you’re in contact with school administrators and the school board members. If you run for school board, be energetic and cognizant of how you can help improve the schools in your neighborhood.

If you want to support, fix, and solve problems, consider what is already out there. Make connections, develop trust, and design in concert with others. As a citizen, you can be informed and advocate for changes and policies that will truly strengthen communities and schools for all families.