What if we launched schools the way NASA launches spaceships?

Credit: NASA

When the Curiosity Rover landed in the Gale Crater in August of 2012, NASA planned for it to rove around Mars for two years. Almost five years later, it’s still going.

It makes me wonder: How much planning goes into a mission like that? How long does NASA test before they send that kind of mission up?

If you squint at the cool Journey to Mars chart above, you’ll see landers like Curiosity way over on the right. They’re part of a much bigger plan to get humans to Mars by the 2030s.

In fact, let’s take a second to unpack the Curiosity part of the Mars project. Here’s a highly detailed chart on how long the process took.

Even though theirs is a tiny piece of the whole Mars puzzle, the Curiosity team spent way more time testing than they did flying or roving. In fact, they spent 73% of their time actively testing things here on earth before the 7 month flight. That’s a 12:1 test:fly ratio and a 3.5:1 test:rove ratio.

When I reflect on that timeline — especially, the time spent testing vs launching, it makes me rethink how we’ve been launching schools.

I take a better, more equitable future of school as seriously as the NASA folks take Mars, but I’m realizing that I spent many years as a school builder not taking pre-launch seriously enough. And I’m working with actual kids, not robots.

How can we find smart, safe ways to test breakthrough ideas in schooling before we send schools up? Before we blow millions? Before we risk student’s and families’ real lives and futures?

I, and many of my peers in the school reform space, haven’t valued pre-launch as much as I should. We just haven’t. We preach markets and choice and then encourage people to shoot for Mars in rockets they’ve only written about. Charter schools, for example, are often approved and launched solely on the written word. No state I know requires real pre-launch engagement with actual students and families. Same thing with in-district initiatives. Few district leaders have a real way to do pre-launch for their educators, either.

What if we thought about school innovation more like NASA and less like Silicon Valley?

Tech and innovation are what getting to Mars is all about, but NASA has a different take more informed by a vision for transporting precious human cargo than on ROI. The Silicon Valley-centric approach to innovation too often looks like begging aspiring entrepreneurs to quit their jobs and “give it a try” just so investors can increase their odds of a big payout on their work. This is lazy and reckless. Getting to Mars involves delicate human cargo. The word “disruptive” doesn’t really fly in NASA the way it does in the Valley.

We should take our responsibility to kids more seriously and work to find ways to test really ambitious schools they way NASA tests their rovers — deliberately, iteratively, with a deep sense of humility about what may or may not work.

That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do at 4.0 — create quality pre-launch experiences for more people who want to get to Mars, I mean who want to make the future of school radically more relevant and effective for actual kids and families.

Here’s another highly detailed chart about how our two fellowships serve as pre-launch opportunities:

Our fellowships push you to validate with students and families before you launch.

Turns out, our application process is open for both of these programs right now! We’re looking to support school builders that are willing to do the pre-launch work with students and families at the helm. The Tiny and Essentials fellowships help you build your school responsibly with support in the form of community, capital and coaching. Applications for both of our fellowships will close 5/14/16. If you are interested join us 5/8/16 for a live webinar to learn more. If you’re ready to apply head over to 4pt0.org/apply.

If you’re thinking about a better way to build schools, or other learning spaces, give our pre-launch stuff a try. Kids who go to school in the future will thank you for it.