The Need for School Design – A 20-Year Long Explosion of New Schools (with breakdown of the data attached)

From the 1970s to 1990, the total number of schools in the U.S. actually declined. In the past two decades, however, U.S. public schooling has seen an explosion of newly created schools and schooling models (U.S. Department of Education, 2013–see attached spreadsheet US Census Data – Number of Schools and Students – 1990-2012).

Since 1990, 13,790 public schools have been created, a more than 16% growth rate. During the 1990s and early 2000s in the United States, educators and advocates from across political and philosophical spectra collaborated in support of creating independently conceived and operated school models. Of the roughly 13,000 new schools created in the last 20 years, the U.S. Department of Education (2013) labels 4,993 of these (36%) as “alternative schools” and 3,703 (27%) of them are some form of charter school.

The lesser known alternative schools category “includes schools that provide nontraditional education, address needs of students that typically cannot be met in regular schools, serve as adjuncts to regular schools, or fall outside the categories of regular, special education, or vocational education” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).  Charter schools, which have received a great deal of national attention, are public schools founded, designed, implemented, and operated by organizations or individuals independent of the traditional public school district hierarchy. While many new schools are managed by a larger organization of one kind or another, independent and new models are constantly being generated and even in externally managed schools, local control is a primary feature of the charter school movement with school specific boards usually having the responsibility for governance (Lake and Hill, 2006).

As the number of newly created, independently operated charter and other public schools increases, school level (as opposed to system level) planning and design becomes increasingly important to their success (Farmer-Hinton, 2006; Feldman, Lopez, and Simon, 2006) and to the national policy debate (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Ravitch, 2010; Elmore, 2004; and Blankstein, 2004). Local school creators must articulate their purposes clearly and then execute a process that generates a model that will serve these purposes. Effective design is fundamental to the success of these new schools. As organizational theorist and systems-thinker Senge (1990) writes:

The neglected leadership role is the designer of the ship. No one has a more sweeping influence than the designer. What good does it do for the captain to say, “turn starboard thirty degrees,” when the designer has built a rudder that will turn only to port, or which takes six hours to turn to starboard. It’s fruitless to be the leader in an organization that is poorly designed…(p. 341)

This blog and specifically our upcoming series on Design Thinking focus on an essential question for our era of school growth: What is school design and what resources can support designers in creating effective schools? The overriding purpose of this series is to lay out types of school design models and their sub-sets and then to explore what each can offer to a designer and what each lacks.

My contention throughout is that school designers need to be familiar with and able to employ several of these models together as no one model covers the full breadth of the design process. As a school designer myself, I do not focus on the benefits of particular approaches to educating students when conducting this analysis, but instead on the process and considerations that can drive the purposeful design of any given school model. I will review literature from the fields of design methods and practices and organizational design, but the central focus of my work is on the developing field of school design itself.

Please let me know if you have work that you have reviewed, would like to share with me, or would like me to review.


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