Can New School Models Offer a Big Boost to K-12 Outcomes? These Funders Think So

School design is red hot right now among education funders. We wrote recently about the XQ Institute, funded by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, and its major infusion of philanthropic capital into new high schools across the country. Along with XQ, the school design space is growing more crowded with players spinning off their own school design outfits, such as Carnegie's Springpoint initiative.

Another newish organization in the mix is Transcend, which describes itself as providing "world-class R&D capacity that supports visionary education leaders to build and replicate breakthrough learning environments."

Like HQ, Transcend has a familiar critique of America's schools as still too rooted in a factory model, along with strong views about why past school redesign efforts have not yielded enough change and what's needed to move faster toward new school models. (See its manifesto here.) Over the past two years, it's worked with a number of school operators to test new ideas and build a network of educators to reinvent schools. You can get a good sense of who's involved with Transcend by looking its advisory board and partners

(As an aside, this effort reminds us of some the new philanthropic initiatives we're seeing in the biomedical research space, including those backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, that heavily emphasize networks, collaboration, and the fast-tracking of promising ideas.)

The funders behind Transcend include NewSchools Venture Fund, Draper Richards Kaplan, New Profit, Raikes Foundation, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Carnegie.

NewSchools has played the leading role in developing Transcend, with its CEO, Stacey Childress, helping to craft the vision behind Transcend and now serving as its board chair.

This summer, New Schools and Transcend announced they were partnering to support teams of educators from 10 organizations looking to design new schools models. The initiative is being billed as a “master class” in school design for the organizations involved.

Kicking off in the Bay Area, the two organizations are teaming up to run a nine-month cohort experience for district and charter leaders to explore the future of learning and engage in what they call family-centered school design. The mix of schools in the Transcend network—including D.C. and Tulsa public schools, but also some top charter networks—is important, given the growing chorus of critics (most recently Blacks Lives Matter) who argue that charters work at odds with district schools. More funders, it seems, want to make sure their new initiatives aren't viewed through this zero-sum lens and caught in the crossfire of the polarized ed wars. Of course, the fact remains that 95 percent of K-12 students still go to district schools.

As we've noted before, plenty of people are skeptical about school redesign efforts. In covering the rollout of HQ's grantees for remaking high schools, we cited Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute who invoked past failed attempts at school redesign in response to President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 call for new model schools. Hess cited data showing that the vast majority of the new schools made very little impact on student achievement and he questioned the faddish nature of school redesign efforts.

The people behind Transcend understand that past efforts in this area have often not borne fruit and are aiming to do things differently. It will be interesting to watch the effort unfold further.