Last Friday at our Next Gen Leadership Academy event we had Summit Public Schools come to speak about their new Basecamp program. Afterward, by luck we caught a UK basketball game and had some great conversations. I feel really positive about where they are coming from and how they want to work with schools. Their work is very well thought out and smartly packaged. They are the real deal too, as their leadership has legitimately done the hard work of opening new schools of innovation so we really connected on those fronts. Summit has been operating for around 12 years, so they have several schools behind them already. They are now taking the next step to make their network national. The Basecamp program, heavily funded by the Gates Foundation and and supported by Facebook engineers donating their time, is recruiting schools all over the US to participate. They started with 20 this year and are looking to add potentially many more. Their personal learning platform is available to the public for free, as is the support of the network, but getting into the network will take a commitment on the part of the school to a particular form of innovation at least at one grade level if not the school as a whole.
As we talked, I think they appreciated where Kentucky was at generally and our work at UK in particular, but, honestly, both they and I knew that we have nothing in Kentucky that is even in the ballpark. The hard work of teaching and learning is still something that is an art between leaders and learners and excellence can occur within nearly any system … but the structural packaging of the institutional model is a technology itself … and Summit is to traditional public schools what the car is to the horse and buggy (Summit is not the only one, but one of the better I have seen). At the core it is the same task, but it is a fundamentally different technological tool with which to execute the task.
In technology development cycles you see this all the time … the new technology frequently is actually rather old when it is adopted at scale. The structural components that Summit is relying upon are not new. PBL, personalized playlists, performance based assessment, individual advising, college transitions … those are all older technologies … but very, very few schools have managed to execute the entire package and fewer still have managed to execute the entire package time after time to show that the technology application is not something that is dependent on a particular circumstance or funder or founder.
Summit is born from Silicon Valley and Stanford ... and is doing what Silicon Valley and Stanford types are actually really great at … packaging all the new technologies together into a single platform and a single user experience. They are doing what Steve Jobs did … which is not actually inventing anything very new, it is inventing a way to package all the technologies together into a single device, which then comes to redefine the entire technological category. We think of the iPhone as the technology itself, and it is, but really at the beginning the iPhone was and mostly still is just a packaging of other technologies. The Gorilla Glass in the iPhone (made in Harrodsburg, KY), for instance, existed since the 1960’s and was used in cars through the 1990’s … but that technology had never been applied to a touchscreen device until Steve Jobs understood how to package that technology with the others into his new computer/phone. It is the exact same story with the Apple II. Nearly all of the technology existed, but it had never been packaged that way before.
I definitely feel like that is what I saw from Summit. Most schools are still the landline phones. A few schools are innovating and starting to figure out the new technology leading to some one-off, custom fit products (that is the category in which I would presently put STEAM). Very few schools have developed a product that was exportable and those that were available on the market were generally clunky, expensive, etc. — for instance, New Tech is a great network of schools developing across the US, but with a really high price to purchase. Like the Blackberry, it is clearly better and it clearly works, but it is not quite there yet.
Summit, particularly their scalable network, strikes me, potentially, as the iPhone. I don’t know how big this will get … but I think it will be big. We as Kentuckians, and educators everywhere, really need to think about what that means (or something in this ballpark). Let’s assume (major assumption) that the previous analogy is right and the iPhone event of the education system really is happening right now and let’s also assume (major assumption) that Clayton Christensen's disruptive innovation cycle will hold … then what? I don’t really know, but it scares/excites me. When a school district signs on with Summit and similar networks (and they will, even in KY) what need do they have for their local Co-Op if Summit is providing most of the networking support? When Summit publishes policy manuals, what need does a school have for KSBA policy writers? When Summit builds a graduate program to train teachers/leaders (and I expect them to) what need does a teacher have for college prep programs?
Many of the technological structural components of the current system are set to be replaced … but with Summit they will be replaced by a group operating in California. Are we as a state cool with that? If we at STEAM want to be a Basecamp school, and some in our school clearly do, we will probably more tightly aligned to Summit than to FCPS.
- If we need curricular support? Summit.
- If we need technical support? Summit.
- If we need policy support? Summit.
- If we need evaluation/assessment support? Summit.
- If we need PD support? Summit.
FCPS will still do transportation, athletics, and probably a few other things like personnel issues … but the core of what makes a school a school could be outsourced (even if the core of what makes learning happen, great teachers, won’t). Over time, cities and towns may adapt to manage transportation, athletics, libraries and the like (we are actually inefficiently operating 2 different systems for those things now) … and at that point … eventually, some day out there … someone may just decide that we do not need school boards, maybe we do not need superintendents, we certainly will not need such a large team at central office, we may not need local co-ops, we likely won’t need much of what KDE does now, we may need fewer local professional organizations, we might not need university-based teacher prep programs, etc. I’m honestly not sure at all where this rabbit hole ends. In each state, there must be a constitution and that constitution speaks to education. But, Kentucky's constitution says that the Legislature must "provide for an efficient system of common schools" … it says “provide for” … it does not say that we need to “operate" them. It is potentially feasible and perhaps even logical that the General Assembly may instead choose to outsource the basic operations of the system. We already outsource vast swaths of the system like assessment to outside companies like Pearson, et al. … so why not?
I’ve never really believed or seen a logical path from which the education system could be fully disrupted … until Summit and the scalability of Basecamp. Now, it almost seems to me to be a kind of certainty. What does Kentucky have that can legitimately compete with Summit? What are we going to say to parents who see kids in other states getting a Summit, New Tech, Big Picture, Envision, etc. education? What are we going to say to Legislators who ask if we can match the personalized performance of those schools? What are we going to say to EPSB (if that even exists) who asks why Summit should not be authorized to train teachers/leaders in KY?
Anyway, we DESPERATELY need to figure out how to move forward as a state, as school districts, as schools, as leaders, as teachers, as students, as universities, and as communities … how are we going to cope with the Tsunami if the iPhone event of education really is happening right now?