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Is Bigger Always Better? The Case For Starting Small With New Learning Ideas

LA Johnson

Our Ideas series is exploring how innovation happens in education.

Anytime there's an innovation in education, often the first question anyone asks is, "Will it scale?"

Sure, you've managed to improve learning outcomes for one classroom, one school, one district. But if you can't reach 50,000 — or 5 million — students, the thinking goes, then it's not real or worthy.

Matt Candler is one person arguing the opposite. And the White House, among others, is listening.

"We get drunk on scale, quickly forgetting that all big ideas were once small," he has written. He makes an argument for a buckshot approach: scattering more money and support across larger numbers of projects at earlier stages. The focus, he says, should be on small-scale approaches: identifying problems, coming up with solutions and testing prototypes.

Making a larger number of smaller bets, Candler argues, would also allow resources to flow to a more diverse group of leaders: perhaps people with on-the-ground experience and roots in the communities they serve.

Candler puts these ideas into practice with an organization called , in New Orleans. It's a community that holds gatherings of educators, entrepreneurs and engineers who create and test ideas for the future of school. At the recent White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools, 4.0 Schools announced that it will support the creation of 1,000 "tiny schools" to quickly prototype new ideas in communities around the country.

You could say that they're taking small, big.

Candler has spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this idea of scale with another New Orleans innovator, his friend Aaron Walker.

Walker is the head of a nonprofit organization that runs a seven-month Fellows Program offering coaching, connections and capital to underrepresented entrepreneurs. Like Candler, he focuses especially on education-related ventures.

Please describe your organizations and their missions better than I just did.

Candler: Our mission is to create a community where educators, families and students work on the future of school together, not in isolation. We've seen, after five years at this, that the best new ideas don't come from a guy in a garage, but from a small community of people giving hard-hitting feedback to a gutsy entrepreneur or school founder who's really listening to them.

Walker: Camelback is an organization that seeks to create a more dynamic social innovation ecosystem by leveraging the genius of all people.

Aaron, you focus on getting a wider diversity of people to participate in creating the future of education. What is the relationship between investing at earlier stages and attracting more diverse entrepreneurs?

Walker: Entrepreneurship is risky. When there is little to no early-stage investing it becomes prohibitively risky for those with the biggest barriers to entry. For aspiring entrepreneurs of color, those barriers are about access to capital, connections and coaching. For instance, when you look at access to capital you see on average, black entrepreneurs have a wealth capacity 13 times less than their white peers. Dig deeper, you see that many are first-generation college graduates who have friends and family relying on them, not to mention they cannot tap generational networks of influence. And then, finally, there is a perception gap. So many times I have heard the refrain "they just aren't ready," when referring to people of color.

At the same time, for the last two years nearly 50 percent of applicants to the [Teach For America] Social Innovation Award are people of color, but when you look at who is invested in, less than 7 percent are people of color. What this tells me is, there is a huge missed opportunity to engage talent in creating the future of education. This is why Camelback exists.

Matt: What is a Tiny School? How are they like food trucks? Why are they important for innovation?

Candler: We were inspired by what we saw in the food industry, where I saw pop-up restaurants and food trucks not just as cool ways to dine, but faster, cheaper ways for chefs to test new ideas in intimate, rapidly deployable experiences with their diners. Tiny Schools do for aspiring school founders what food trucks do for aspiring restaurateurs — it gives them a cheaper, faster way to test their ideas in the real world, with the people they want to serve.

Beyond the obvious benefits of lowering costs of time and money, and reducing the risks of starting bigger schools, there's a huge thing about this I didn't see coming — it feels more human than the old way of doing school. For the families and students who've volunteered to give feedback to our first four tiny school builders, the whole process has been humbling and inspiring.

These families don't feel experimented on, they feel ownership. They feel like they have a stake in the game in ways that parents of even the most effective startup charter schools I've helped open never felt.

The personal relationships between school founder and students and families in these early stage testing versions of the schools seem to creating a level of empathy that other approaches I've tried don't seem to be able to generate. Of all of the benefits, this is the one I'm most excited about.


Matt, is it hard as the head of a nonprofit to criticize the investors that feed you?

Candler: It can be hard to speak your mind about philanthropy when you rely on it to pay your team and do your work. The fact remains that there's too little discussion about where money goes, who should get it and whether anyone's talking about a coherent strategy for philanthropy in education.

Too often, from my perspective, it feels like funders aren't talking [to each other]. It looks good, but there's little deep conversation about the future of school. What I see looks like toddlers at parallel play.

Aaron, do you agree that funders' strategies need work?

Walker: It has always perplexed and frustrated me the risk-averse nature of venture philanthropy.

The point, I think, is to make big dents on seemingly intractable problems. In my view, the only way you do that is the variation that comes through trial and error. And not just ideas slightly left or right of center, but Hail Marys too. I love [economist] Tim Harford's book, Adapt. He tells the story of Muhammad Yunus, the now famous founder of Grameen Bank. He recounts that Yunus' first development project — a partnership between landowners, farm workers and himself to cultivate unused land during winter — was a failure. He lost $600, which was a huge amount then.

From that failure he adapted and started to provide micro-loans to Bangladeshi women. The rest is history. We miss out on these ideas in education because we don't invest in the trial-and-error phase.

What we see is that VCs often do not understand opportunities from diverse entrepreneurs. The problems are not ones they have experienced; the solutions are not ones they could imagine using. Moreover, as all the money goes downstream, it is up to "friends and family" and angels to fill in the gap. That is where Camelback comes in — to serve as that missing "friends and family" link.

[Bricolage, a charter school in New Orleans we wrote about last year, started as a 4.0 schools "Tiny schools" project. Read more about Tiny Schools here.]

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.