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Ask an Expert: Sparking schoolwide innovation.

Q. I am interested in innovative things public schools are doing to motivate students. Why does it seem so difficult to replicate successful programs (Waldorf, Montessori, Dewey, etc.) on a larger scale at public neighborhood schools?

A. The mission of the U.S. Department of Education is “to serve America’s students—to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” While education in the U.S. operates, for the most part, under local control, the federal government is becoming increasingly more involved in the effort to “prepare the next generation for success in college and the workforce, ensuring that American children lead the world once again in creativity and achievement.”

Based on what has been deemed “the current situation,” according to President Obama, “preparing our children to compete in the global economy is one of the most urgent challenges we face.”  He goes on to say that “[w]e need to stop paying lip service to public education, and start holding communities, administrators, teachers, parents and students accountable.” By 2020, Obama expects that America will “again have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world with the highest proportion of college graduates of any country.” Click here to read more.

I thought to answer this question in a couple of ways and ultimately decided on this one. I’ll pose a question back to you: What do you mean by “successful”? I ask this because the programs that you mention and the traditional public school system have a very different idea of what “success” means. I’d be willing to bet that nowhere in the literature on Waldorf, Dewey-based, Montessori, or charter schools that follow similar philosophies, is there anything about “global competitiveness” – but instead, perhaps, “global awareness” – and an intention to engage with the world and not compete with the people in it.

A Dewey-inspired school, for example, where I worked for several years, “prepares students to become proactive citizens in a democratic society. Emotional, social, and physical safety is emphasized through the curriculum as a means of ensuring that all students feel safe and connected to one another.” Students “work together to develop respect for diversity, compassion for humanity and an understanding of the importance of serving others.” The intention of Maria Montessori was to observe and support the natural development of children. Montessori schools “help children develop creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and time-management skills, to contribute to society and the environment, and to become fulfilled persons in their particular time and place on Earth.”

Naturally, based on a school’s intentions, the daily lives of students in various environments will follow a variety of suits. I believe this speaks to your question. No doubt, there are public schools that are very successful in motivating students. The key to motivated students, in my mind, is a focus on connection – connection to each other, to the world around them and to themselves.

These intentions can be gleaned from the “successful programs” to which you allude. So, simply put, the reasons why we see differences between students who experience these programs and those who are in “the system” are perhaps because of the intentions that are set and the paths crafted to meet those intentions. In public schools, this means standardized testing, “high stakes,” “standards,” and “accountability.” In programs more focused on educating kids holistically, we see innovation… and smiling kids.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.