Scaling Awesome Schools — a discussion with Ted Fujimoto

In what has to be one of the more surreal experiences of this trip so far, I spent the morning last Friday with Ted Fujimoto (in a super cool restaurant just off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, hence the surreal-ness!) talking all things from systems thinking in the tech and comms sector, franchising processes in the car industry, brand development and transformation in the hotel and restaurant industry, innovation in digital music design and cloud based apps….and all boiling down into protocols and processes for school design, culture development and mindset embedding, and the effective scaling of new models of school! It was really fascinating to hear how his broad range of life and career experiences and personal interests have informed his thinking over time around this.

Ted has spent his career working across business, education and tech, and has been a key architect of the New Tech Network of schools, currently ‘speed scaling’ across the USA. His journey into the education world, as with most things in life for many of us, was serendipitous — having started a company in the logistics and comms sector in his late teens/early twenties in Silicon Valley, he decided to relocate his business (at the same time as a number of other successful entrepreneurs working in tech and bio tech) from Silicon Valley to Napa Valley in 1990. Within the first year all realised that there were serious difficulties with recruiting skilled employees in the area, which was primarily a farming town, even for administrative roles. So he and a number of the other CEOs approached the local District school board and said they would have to move out of the area unless something was done, and the skills shortage was addressed. The District threw it back to the group, saying, as employers — what are you going to do about it? How are you going to help solve this problem, it’s your problem too! (This is exactly the approach of the Studio School and UTC movements in the UK, co-ownership of the challenge)

From that point on Ted started working with a District administrator to look at new school designs, specifically with a model which had the initial aim of producing graduates and employees for the local tech companies in mind. The most ‘innovative’ school designs that they visited across the US had only minor components that came close to the authentic work and learning that was needed. So they began by looking at the systems, processes and design protocols within Ted’s own company — around project development and management — and created the first template for a PBL curriculum based on this. Ted also agreed to provide technologies to support the first New Tech school design as well as methodologies to enable the design’s replication.

He described it to me as bringing the DNA of his business into the school environment, focussing very much on three key things to start with:

  • Mindsets
  • Culture setting & people
  • Design protocols for projects

In 1996 New Tech Napa was born, set up from scratch in a previously mothballed elementary school building. In the first year the school attracted mainly traditionally ‘low performing’ students, those who felt they had nothing to lose by trying something different, and they delivered a full wall to wall PBL curriculum model. Nine months later the group graduated and outscored their peers under State assessments by 10–15% across the District. Ted then employed 6 of the graduates, and one has worked with him through a number of companies eventually ending up managing a $10+ million insurance enterprise.

Since 1996 the New Tech Network has grown and expanded exponentially — with currently over 200 schools open, and opening new schools at a rate of 20–40 per year. We discussed the key ingredients for scaling (systems and processes), particularly:

  • Systematising and calibrating experiences across and within networks
  • the filtering of best practice across and within networks
  • UX and customer experience — ensuring consistency and quality

And linked to this, the need to establish ritualistic processes for embedding values over time — for example in the hotel industry, having daily staff meetings where teams get together to identify and discuss how a particular company value has been exemplified during the day. I witnessed a particularly powerful example of this sort of activity at New Village Girls Academy, where at the end of the school day we met as a staff team to each discuss how we had supported a particular student during that day/week, then identify another student who was in need of additional help or support, and which other member of staff had been supporting that person too. It’s hard to describe, but building a chain of mutual support and understanding of individual needs, as well as reinforcing the importance of the value they place on care within the school community.

In both the school and the business world, the authenticity of interactions is vital for building cultures based on openness and trust. Ted described the most important values, that need to be identified and nurtured in individuals and schools, as:

  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Commitment to excellence

For the New Tech Network of schools, and the highest performing deeper learning school designs more generally, the common priority is a focus on relationships first, which enables developing relevance and then drives rigour — the complete opposite order and emphasis to traditional school designs.

So the big question — what does all this mean in terms of a strategy for scaling successful school models?

I asked Ted what the necessary conditions and factors are which need to be in place to effectively scale school models — and the first thing he highlighted was that an effective replication system needs to be designed, which requires 2 to 3 times more work than creating a single school design = resource, methodology, time. This he felt was the main reason that so few successful school models (in the USA), currently, have successfully scaled — not enough investment in an effective process and system for scaling. Capital is also needed to build out teams and refine processes, and the replication rate is also dependent on how good the underlying design is. He pointed out that for New Tech Network it took nearly 10 years to go beyond opening 15 schools per year, they were constantly iterating the model.

In terms of system design, a broad strategy (and this is especially useful for us in the UK who are looking to design and scale new school models) could look like:

1 — defining and getting everyone ‘calibrated’ around the non negotiable design principles. And giving significant thought to exactly how this is going to be done, for example how will you use the first few weeks of term, and inset days, to culture build. What activities will help develop and embed the culture you are aiming to achieve. How will time across the school week be used, how often will teams meet. At scale, you also need calibration processes across the network — how and when/where does this happen.

2 — ensuring everyone participates in calibration activities and rituals, on a daily, weekly, and annual basis, and across the network e.g. through events. At scale everyone needs to know what is seen as good practice — what does excellence look like. Across the New Tech Network, culture calibration is facilitated through regular videoconferencing for example — this being the communication infrastructure which helps embed school operating system DNA. We discussed how technologies can support the embedding of design principles and culture calibration across networks, and as always it depends on how they are used and applied. Tech is going to have little impact in isolation, it depends on how individuals and organisations utilise it.

3 — Ted felt that replication systems were relatively simple as long as all design elements are aligned and sit together, ensuring fidelity across the core. In New Tech’s case these being relationships, relevance and rigour.

4 — Linking to the second point, once the design elements and core principles are aligned, and a calibration system in place at a school level, at a network level you then need to constantly reinforce values, principles and behaviours e.g. through coaching, peer mentoring, site visits, peer review and observing good practice = effective time allocation and the prioritisation of activities. And showcasing network wide exemplars of good practice, e.g. through regular newsletters, films, open days etc.

5 — We discussed the importance of an individual within the network (teacher or school leader) having links and strong relationships with a number of other people within and across the network to also help with practice development and calibration. As an organisation therefore, how will you build in opportunities for connections and relationships to develop — e.g. network conferences focussed on project development and team work, modelling the school environment.

System transformation in the USA

Following on from this, I asked Ted what was needed at a system level in the USA to radically transform the whole school system from one model of learning to another. He felt that at least 6000 demonstrator schools were needed, each working directly with and supporting another 5 schools. Currently there are around 700–800 demonstrator schools across the US that fulfil this role, and progress towards full system transformation is likely to take 15 years minimum.

We discussed the likely barriers to transformation: government policy and legislative processes, school systems at District and State level typically being resilient to change, time allocation and management at a school level, e.g. mandatory useless PD activity which is energy and time zapping, resource, and potentially but not always, Union activity.

However, right now there are powerful forces bubbling at the grassroots which are forcing legislators and District officials to think differently — for example 75% of young people are currently effectively being failed by the system, unable to get decent jobs and likely to be in need of some form of government support or welfare. This is staggering. As a result there is significant discontent brewing amongst voters that something needs to be done, which is forcing issues to the surface. We have similar sentiment in the UK, particularly from the business community.

So what is now happening?

Following a recent change in US federal law, increased autonomy and power over education policy has now been devolved to State level, with a number of manifestations at District level: the increasing recognition of the importance of competency based learning, waivers around graduation credits, and the increasing importance of new and innovative school designs to address entrenched challenges. This is leading to some Districts adopting one or more new school models across all district schools, leading to rapid scaling, transformation and innovation diffusion. As Ted said, autonomy in itself doesn’t necessary foster action, you need alignment of actors and a unique set of elements working together.

(Within the UK, thinking about the development and growth of Multi Academy Trusts, I think we are now starting to see signs of this kind of wall to wall mentality at local authority level, but from the perspective of who (which chain) is going to run and manage the schools. So the question becomes: how do you shift, or combine, the discussion into one about school design and models, and transforming outcomes for young people, as well as effective school management. And how do you make the RSCs also see this as important or vital, given their evolving role in brokering mass takeovers.)

So in 15 years time — what will the US school system look like?

Ted felt that 15 years down the line more than half of students in the US will be experiencing deeper learning environments in schools, plus a curriculum orientated around mindset and habit development. This prediction also resonated with my conversation last week with Sara Skvirsky at the Institute for the Future who said that PBL would probably over time become the norm, as well as the importance of the development of skills and broader competencies.

We have so so far to go in the UK on all this! (But progress is being made…)

As an aside, and linked to my tech investigations…

This whole conversation with Ted also got me thinking about ‘personalised learning’ — something that I’ve been hearing consistently about during my US travels, and particularly related to tech platforms that enable students to work at their own pace through a digital device. Actually, I suspect that this term may have been misappropriated in this context — personalised learning ultimately, in a meaningful interpretation, is really about powerful relationships between teacher/coach and student, and across the wider school community.

Tech can certainly facilitate and enable personalisation, and allow students to undertake more self directed work, and learn time management and pace, but true personalisation still involves human contact and guidance. Personally I’m not sure that robots will ever effectively replace that relationship (although I may very well be proved wrong over time!) And something that Sugata Mitra said recently — we worry that young people particularly are spending so much of their lives staring into a screen, but lets not forget the real purpose of technology here, enabling people to talk to and connect with other people.

Ted also made a strong argument against EdTech as an effective innovation scaling and diffusion approach, as most tools tend to orientate around data and school management, rather than looking to change cultures (R+R+R). Linked to my many discussions in San Francisco, there is also the risk that tech just ends up embedding traditional ways of doing things. And in our increasingly data driven school system we may very easily end up focussing on the wrong things, on data that gives limited or false impressions, and make bad decisions and judgements as a result. In Ted’s words, tech could be a worrying distraction from the real issues and challenges at hand.