Mass Localism: How Might the Race to the Top Money Be Better Spent?
Yong Zhao's blog.
With Race to the Top, the U.S. Department of EducationĂ˘€™s guess may just be wrong. National curriculum has not proven to be the silver bullet for raising achievement or closing gaps (I have written about this before on this site and in my book); charter schools have not been proven to be THE solution either (they are plenty of good ones and bad ones just as public schools); teacher merit pay or associating teacher evaluation and job security to student test scores has not been proven to raise teacher quality either; and longitudinal data systems are based on a very mechanical view of student growth and development, ignoring individual differences and the human aspect of education. All these measures, mandated by Race to the Top, are very likely to result in more bureaucracy, cheating, and narrowing children's educational experiences, and stifle creativity and innovation. Not exactly what we need to prepare our children to meet the challenges of a complex, rapidly changing world in the age of globalization.
The Race to the Top may achieve more desirable results if following other approaches. One of such approach is "mass localism," something I learned last week while in England studying its educational changes, particularly the federation of schools.
In a discussion paper produced by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), a London-based independent body with "a mission to make the UK more innovative," mass localism is described as an effective approach that combines Ă˘€ślocal action and national scaleĂ˘€ť to addressing major social challenges such as climate change and public health. The paper draws on a successful program of NESTA to support communities to reduce carbon emissions in the UKĂ˘€”the Big Green Challenge. It shows how local and central governments "can encourage widespread, high quality local responses to big challenges."
The Big Green Challenge was a challenge prize program launched in 2007 and completed in 2010. Unlike traditional grant programs that give the winning proposal the funds to implement the proposed activities, the Big Green Challenge began as an open contest that aimed at generating as many solutions as possible. "Application criteria in the 'call for ideas' stage were very broad, and NESTA explicitly invited proposals from any non-profit group whether formally constituted or not -- 20 per cent of applicants were just informal groups at this stage. In addition, a significant proportion of the groups applying didnĂ˘€™t previously have an environmental focus."
The Program provided support along the way. At the initial stage, the support was in the form of advice rather than financial investment. "The application process asked challenging questions and encouraged teams to do things differently, but in the spirit of critical friends rather than examiners." At a later stage, finalists were provided a modest amount of funds to implement their ambitious projects along with "a range of partners and expert knowledge sources, including 20 days of support from business development experts UnLtd." The finalists who proved their approaches most successful won the 1 million pounds prize.
Apparently, the program was a huge success. "The finalists achieved an average reduction in CO2 emissions of 15 per cent during the final year (with the winning projects achieving between 10 and 32 per cent reductions). This means that in the space of just one year these community-led interventions have met almost half (44 per cent) of the UKĂ˘€™s target for reducing CO2 by 2020."
More importantly, the project demonstrated "mass localism" as an effective approach to address social issues. In summarizing the lessons learned, the report suggests:
There are a lot more details about the Big Green Challenge you can find by reading the full paper.(pdf file)
What would it be like if the U.S. Department of Education took the "mass localism" approach to distributing the 4.3 billion dollars?
For sure, we will get a lot more innovative, locally produced and owned, and effective solutions than what has been prescribed.
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