An Innovative Partnership

Ten years ago this month I waddled – enormously pregnant – into a job interview with the founder of a billion dollar healthcare tech company. “I have this crazy idea about education,” he said.

Technology, he hypothesized, could make learning more interesting for students. He saw it as a platform enabling kids to learn at their own pace, pursuing courses of study according to their own curiosity. This style of self-driven, high-tech learning, he thought, would keep kids engaged, and graduate them with skills necessary in our evolving economy.

He planned to explore the idea through his foundation. “What do you think?” he asked. I thought a lot.

In my experience, philanthropy and public education had not made the most successful of bedfellows. The work is notoriously hard, and structures and nuance on both sides can hinder effective partnerships.

Even promising strategies contribute to “initiative fatigue” in schools, the result of constant new mandates, tools, and big ideas. An Education Weekly commentator recently observed of the term, “I hear it everywhere I go.”

Compounding that weariness is an understandable frustration among some educators that their work is disproportionately subjected to the opinions, advice, and occasional interference of outsiders. Teacher and writer Trent Kays declares,

Politicians, business magnates and venture capitalists have become the educational experts now.

Some of Kays’ generalizations are unfair, but his tone strikes me. He’s speaking out for those who are in the education system every day and have made it – and its evolution – their life’s work. He continues:

Perhaps most frustrating is that there are dedicated educators and researchers who are actively trying to change and improve education. But, their voices become minimized because they’re not millionaires, billionaires or have started a company in Silicon Valley.

Ten years and $12 million into our foundation’s journey in education, we’ve attempted to draw strength both from our board’s entrepreneurial experience and from within the education community. We’re not alone in that attempt – many of those Kays criticizes have done the same, engaging scores of experienced educators to ensure respect for school cultures, professionals and daily realities as they seek to influence systems change.

For us, though, how we’ve done it is unquestionably key to our success.

In 2009, we established the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. There, an independent team of researchers and educators is now on track to partner with half the middle schools in Vermont, supporting technology-rich learning and innovative school cultures. 

I disagree with Kays’ argument that educator voices are subjugated to those of wealthy philanthropists. It’s been useful for us to consider, though, how the establishment of an independent entity grounded in the education community itself supports our goal of authentic, effective, peer-driven innovation.

And what have we achieved? A longitudinal study is now underway, but discreet pilot results are compelling. Researchers observed a 21.2% decrease in male absenteeism after just one year. Students, teachers and parents have further reported improved engagement, participation, behavior, and core academic outcomes – all harbingers of later academic and earnings success.

To put a finer point on it, my venture capitalist boss declares simply: “it’s a home run.”

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation in Winooski, VT since 2005.

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