100Kin10 as a model of education reform

The Clinton Foundation recently hosted a small roundtable discussion led by Chelsea Clinton and made up of funders and civic education organizations. The purpose was to learn about the 100Kin10 model. Although 100Kin10 is concerned with STEM education, it is also a model for reform in other areas, such as the one that concerns me professionally: civic education.

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”

I’d be open to arguments against the target he set, but I’ll assume for the sake of this post that it was a good one. It wasn’t the President’s own idea but resulted from previous research and discussion. Thus the story really begins before the 2011 State of the Union, with the research and advocacy that influenced President Obama.

With the President ‘s term running out, a group of 28 organizations came together to form 100Kin10. They included unions and districts that bargain with unions, education schools and alternatives to ed. schools (like Teach for America), companies, and foundations. New groups could be added to the network by nomination after a vetting process. Membership does not require ascribing to any particular model of science education, any specific strategy for getting to 100k, or any philosophy of education–groups must simply share the goal of 100,000 new STEM educators and be committed to seriously assessing quality.

The network has a very lean central node. Lots of money circulates in the form of grants or contracts from one network member to another, but the 100Kin10 team doesn’t collect and redistribute that money. Members of the network make commitments to advance the cause, and they do their actual work in a decentralized way.

100Kin10 has promoted consistent measurement by helping to develop assessment tools. There’s an agreement not to share the data with funders. That encourages members to use the tools and reflect candidly on what their data tell them.

The network has made strong progress toward the numerical goal set by President Obama. However, members have become increasingly aware that meeting the 100,000 target will not solve the problem. More teachers will still be needed as the years go by. Besides, there is more to improving STEM than hiring more and better STEM teachers.

I am a critic of “root cause analysis” because I believe that complex problems never have one or a few determinative causes. Problems are almost always systems of interlocking causes and consequences. With a similar view in mind, 100Kin10 asked a large number of experts and stakeholders to identify reasons for the chronic shortage of strong STEM teachers. Respondents came up with around 100 causes, each of which could plausibly be seen as the “root.”

If the respondents had been asked to identify the single most important factor, they would have been biased by their own vantage points and organizational missions. Instead, they were asked whether changing one factor would affect another specific one–in other words, whether each given pair of factors was causally related. These data were collected to produce a network map of causation.

As with most networks that develop in nature, this one was skewed. The rule of thumb is that 20% of nodes will have 80% of the links. I don’t know whether the 100Kin10 map follows that 80/20 distribution precisely, but it looks roughly like that to the eye. This means that by changing 20% of the variables measured in this complex system, we can directly move 80% of the whole system. Therefore, 100Kin10 has recently focused on encouraging members to shift their attention and discretionary efforts to the most central nodes. That is a powerful form of social analysis and leadership.

We could do something similar for civics. The goal would not be 100,000 qualified civics teachers, but some other broad and compelling outcome. Many of the steps would be similar. However, we would have take some differences into account:

Incentives: STEM education pays off for the individual who gains skills and credentials, and for firms and communities that gain more qualified workers. Thus the case for STEM is economic. The case for civics has to be different–probably patriotic and democratic (with a little “d”).

Politics: STEM is not without political controversy. (Should evolution be taught? Should resources be distributed to the poorest students, or to schools that demonstrate success?) However, civics is more pervasively political. Political opponents disagree in principle about what should be taught. Civics can also have immediate partisan implications by affecting who votes. To be clear, turnout is not the central goal of civics, but it could be an ancillary effect, and that makes it “political” (in a bad sense). On the other hand, there is more consensus about the core purposes of school-based civics than we sometimes assume.

Outcomes: The debate about what counts as a good outcome for students is more controversial in civics than in STEM. Disagreements go beyond simple left/right debates. People who share other views about politics may still disagree about the importance of civic knowledge versus civic action, or appreciating the constitutional system versus critically assessing it, or local citizenship versus global citizenship. (For my own part, I believe that an absolutely central goal is to increase students’ sheer interest in politics, because without a sense of intrinsic motivation to stay involved and informed, they will forget what they learn in civics class or fail to update it as the world changes.)

The role of the classroom: In education generally, there’s a live debate about how much the school, the classroom, and the teacher matter compared to the economy and social context beyond the school walls. People who believe that we can educate our way to social mobility are rightly challenged by critics who argue that the economy must be reformed to generate real opportunity. That debate is even more fundamental in civics, because it’s fairly clear that the political context beyond the classroom is unsatisfactory. In civics, the context starts with the school as a community (is it a just and loving place or a pipeline to prison?) and extends to the democracy as a whole, because our formal institutions are clearly flawed. I’m one who believes that good civics teaching is beneficial even under conditions of injustice, but we need to consider the critique that civics just accommodates students to an imperfect system and that reform should focus elsewhere.

These are differences between civics and STEM. They are mostly differences of degree, not profound gaps, and they do not suggest that reforming civics is impossible. In fact, civics has a great deal of momentum right now because of a broadly shared sense of civic crisis. (See our recent White Paper, “The Republic is (Still) at Risk and Civics is Part of the Solution.) It’s exciting to contemplate something like 100Kin10 for civic education.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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