Customized Schooling: Interview With Frederick M. Hess and Bruno V. Manno

School Days, Michael F. Shaughnessy,

1. What led to this book on customized education?

For years, the little attention devoted to entrepreneurship and the “new sector” in K-12 schooling has generally focused on efforts to boost the supply of familiar things: more good schools, more talented teachers, and more effective school leaders.  Consequently, the best known and most celebrated endeavors have tended to be “whole school” solutions like charter operations KIPP, Green Dot, and Achievement First or human capital efforts like The New Teacher Project, Teach For America, or New Leaders for New Schools. Too often missing, however, has been careful analysis of how differentiated solutions or innovative tools might enable providers to meet the demand for schooling in smarter ways.

Based on years of intimate involvement in this field, my co-editor Bruno Manno and I believe the focus of philanthropic, policy, and reform energy on a conventional schooling model is not the product of careful examination, but a default conclusion, selected because we lack an understanding of the demands in the K-12 sector. To correct this misconception, we think the education sector needs a Copernican jolt which upends the assumption that new ventures must revolve around the “whole school” model and re-centers entrepreneurial efforts on meeting the varied, discrete, and poorly understood needs of students. It is our hope that this volume can contribute to that shift.

2. Who were some of the contributors?

The book offers a whirlwind tour of the possibilities that emerge when we start to think beyond whole-school reform, drawing from an all-star group of celebrated researchers, entrepreneurs, and policy analysts. Education maverick Chris Whittle considers the rise of global schooling and the emergence of transnational school providers. Checker Finn and Eric Osberg of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute offer a vision of educational choice that transcends choosing school A or B, and that envisions “educational savings accounts” which permit parents to customize services to their child’s needs. Joe Williams from Democrats for Education Reform examines different outfits that are working to empower parents to make smart choices.

UPenn’s Doug Lynch and Michael Gottfried explore what it will take for providers to supply clear signals to consumers about the quality of specialized services in the education marketplace. Jon Fullerton of Harvard University explains how to provide data systems capable of supporting these kinds of decisions, by families or educators. By drawing on his experiences in higher education, Burck Smith considers how to introduce real cost sensitivity into K-12 schooling. Ted Kolderie and Curtis Johnson from Education Evolving discuss the policy implications of all of this. And on, and on…

3. What do you mean by “unbundling”?

“Unbundling” is a process in which innovators deconstruct established structures and routines and reassemble them in newer, smarter ways.  In K-12 education, unbundling typically occurs across two dimensions. The first is structural unbundling, in which we loosen our grip on traditional ideas about “teacher,” “school,” or “school system” and explore how to deliver schooling in new and effective ways.

The second dimension is content unbundling, or unbundling the “stuff” of learning. In this dimension, we revisit assumptions about the scope and sequence of what students are expected to learn and explore new, more varied approaches to curriculum and coursework.

This distinction may not be immediately clear, so consider a couple of examples. A virtual classroom in which a distinguished math instructor in Boston is teaching students in Birmingham online represents a clear change in the structure and delivery of schooling. But there’s no reason to expect that the math lessons he delivers will be sequenced or organized any differently than in a traditional classroom setting.

Conversely, adapting curriculum content and schedules to better suit individual student and teacher needs in real time, as has been done in New York City’s School of One, can effectively slice and dice the familiar blocks of learning that persist in most classrooms. Allowing customized learning objectives and sequences, though, doesn’t necessarily require redesigning the structure and delivery of schooling.

4. How does technology fit into this picture?

There is no shortage of education leaders hailing the power of technology to revolutionize schooling. What can get lost in the excitement, however, is that 21st century technologies are so promising not because they let us do the same things better, but because they offer a chance to rethink how we deliver schooling.  If harnessed appropriately, we believe that new technologies and greater use of online learning platforms can provide the technical capability, sophisticated data management, and cost-saving efficiency necessary to successfully overturn our familiar approaches to delivering education, all for the benefit of their families or for the educators, schools, and systems of schools that serve them.

As our contributors note, the potential of technology in helping carve new paths to instruction delivery is reflected by new providers tackling these challenges, such as Wireless Generation’s mobile assessment software, the national network of afterschool mentors at Citizen Schools, or the online tutoring services available to students through SMARTHINKING.  Unleashing the transformative power of these and other high-tech providers cannot just be about the technology, it must also be about the conditions in which their promising offerings will unspool; a customized model provides just that.

5. How would this model help at-risk students?

While few students are well-served by the conventional one-size-fits-all school model, it is especially harmful for those students with learning difficulties, behavior problems, or those who fall outside the conventional age range. Standardized tests and other conventional performance metrics used today don’t tell us enough about where they are and what they need, and teachers lack the freedom to seek out outside services which could better serve their students’ individual learning styles. As a result, these kids are much more likely to get discouraged and drop out.

A customized schooling approach would help support these students by meeting them where they are and crafting specialized learning paths that take their individual needs and preferences into account. More sophisticated data systems, an openness to partnering with outside providers, and greater flexibility in rearranging the building blocks of school through this model can help all students find success.

6. How would a customized school model affect teachers and administrators?

Much of the volume’s discussion around customization focuses on students, but the intuitions apply equally to educators and administrators. Teachers in need of specialized lesson plans or wishing to import specialized support for a handful of advanced students could use new resources to become more effective. Districts–much like students, parents, and teachers–have specialized needs that are also largely neglected by the traditional one-size-fits-all model. However, several organizations and education schools have taken a customized schooling approach to tackling this blind spot, tailoring their offerings to the specific human-capital needs of districts and teachers.

For example, the New Teacher Project has pioneered a new method to fill the teacher pipeline by looking outside typical talent pools and recruiting excellent teachers from across the country, while also gently pushing districts to make teacher-staffing processes more sensitive to quality. On the education school front, institutions like Teacher U are targeting aspiring educators who are interested in teaching at high-performance charters like KIPP or Achieve First. For district leaders frustrated by their inability to find quality staff and for teachers who want a more personalized approach to training and licensure, such help fulfills their needs more effectively and efficiently than the traditional one-size-fits-all human-capital model.

7. What does this book say to those interested in reform?

For decades, school-choice reformers have worked to increase choice only among schools, thereby missing an opportunity to appeal to the vast majority of parents who are not willing to relocate schools, but would be interested in greater choice among tutors, lesson plans, or instructional approaches. Indeed, most reform discussions around of accountability, merit pay, and extended learning time have emphasized “whole school” assumptions that simply take traditional schools and classrooms as givens. We believe that such a mindset is ultimately crippling because it ties us to an antiquated, bureaucratic system which neglects individual needs and limits access to high-quality supplemental instruction to the affluent families who buy them on their own.

If it makes sense to allow all students to benefit from these tools, technologies, and talent–and Bruno and I think that it does–then it is crucial to find ways around the accumulated policies and practices that lock us into a whole-school mindset. The new charge must be for schooling to make a shift from the centralized, industrial model to the more nimble, customized model seen recently in so many other areas of life–and to do so by leveraging greater educational, not school, choice.

8. How can interested people get a copy of the book?

On Amazon and Harvard Education Press’s website:


Michael F. Schaughnessy is Senior Columnist at

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