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Tilling, Seeding, and Weeding: Creating New and Better Schools

by Michael Q. McShane - September 19, 2016

Cultivating an ecosystem of new and better schools is a lot like gardening. It takes tilling (creating a policy environment that allows for new schools), seeding (starting schools with the necessary human capital to flourish), and weeding (regulation).

Contemporary education reform rhetoric seems to use the word bad a lot. A headline from Newsweek magazine was titled, “Why we must fire bad teachers” (Thomas, 2010). An editorial in the New York Daily News by then-Chancellor Dennis Walcott began with the headline, “Close bad schools, save their students” (2012).

Given the performance of the United States education system, bad is not an entirely unreasonable adjective. On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, 42% of fourth graders and 35% of eighth graders were found to be proficient in math and 35% of fourth graders and 36% of eighth graders were proficient in reading.

However, it is not necessarily true that closing bad schools or firing bad teachers will improve children’s education. Rather than obsess over getting rid of the bad schools, it is perhaps more helpful to think about how we can cultivate good ones.

Economist F.A. von Hayek argued in his 1974 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. (2014, p. 371)

A gardener’s approach to developing new schools might be a welcome change during an age when many proposed reforms feel like they were created to standardize education.

One task of a gardener is to till the soil so a seedling might take hold. This type of phenomenon occurs in education at the policy level. As long as the government provides licenses to operate schools, it is very difficult for different ones from outside the traditional educational system to emerge. Allowing for flexible funding to follow students into their choice of schools creates a seedbed for new innovative providers to emerge whether these institutions are government operated or not. While many stakeholders are often hung up on particular words (e.g., school vouchers), the mechanism that governs school creation, development, and funding is the most important factor.

How school funding streams are structured is also important. Arizona and Florida have created Education Savings Account (ESA) programs that place students’ state funding in a flexible use spending account their families can spend on qualified educational expenditures similar to a health savings account. These programs encourage a more innovative funding system where a family might contract with multiple providers for specialized assistance. Other programs fund students in one lump sum and encourage a single provider to manage a student’s entire education (e.g., vouchers, tax credit scholarships). Unfortunately, these alternative programs may not be as flexible or useful as an ESA.

Tilling also involves fertilizing. In schooling, this type of behavior can be accomplished by school incubators. In the charter school sector, organizations like New Schools for New Orleans help prospective school leaders refine their plans, hire staff, and launch so that they hit the ground running upon opening. Starting a new school takes a lot of time and energy. Taking part in these types of actions can help organizations defray some of these costs to help new schools become better prepared to open their doors.

After tilling, plants do not suddenly emerge out of thin air; gardeners must seed. In schooling, this type of action takes several forms. This primarily means that schools must have the human capital necessary to instruct students and manage their operations. A school that suddenly sprouts up will need a leader with an expanded portfolio of skills and responsibilities including legal compliance, accounting, marketing, and instructional leadership. High quality school preparation, development, and operation will need to take these skills into account. Much of this sentiment also applies to teaching. As new schools evolve and change to meet market demand, what is asked of teachers might also need to change.

Where might these high quality teachers come from? On one hand, there is a ready supply in teacher preparation programs operated by some religious denominations and their affiliated schools. Two notable examples are the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (of which I am a graduate) or Loyola Marymount University’s Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education (PLACE) Corps. However, these programs would need to ramp up dramatically in size to meet the needs of all of the possible new schools that could emerge. Other startup teacher preparation programs in the charter sector like Relay Graduate School of Education could serve as a model. In addition to these specific training programs, there is a great number of high quality faculties of education across the United States that graduate many teacher trainees every year to populate these schools.

Finally, gardeners must also weed to prevent the stifling of seedlings. This is perhaps the trickiest task of all because although weeds can kill other plants, gardeners must take care not to remove seedlings that have not yet sprouted. In education, regulating is the equivalent of weeding and is arguably the thorniest aspect of cultivating a school marketplace. One way to make sure that regulation does not stifle growth is to base it more on incentives rather than punishment. Instead of requiring that schools educate a certain number of students from low income backgrounds or with special needs, policymakers could incentive schools to serve these students. Perhaps more funding or operational flexibility could be granted when schools educate students who face more difficult challenges.

With respect to accountability for academic results, policymakers must keep in mind that a competitive marketplace is different than the traditional arrangement of public schooling where policies like school accountability and teacher evaluation were once created. In general, these policies function under the assumption that students are required to attend a particular school. This decision is usually determined according to where students live. As a result, the government has a responsibility to ensure that the school and its teachers are of high quality. When parental choice is mixed in, an additional level of accountability is created as families can simply leave if they think a school is not of a sufficient quality. This assumes that families have the knowledge and ability to move their child safely from one institution to another.

Access to high quality information and a lack of geographically close options can undercut the ability of parents to vote with their feet. Properly crafted regulation can curb the excesses of the marketplace while staying out of the way of entrepreneurial school leaders. Regulation can be written in a way that gives parents the information they need to make good decisions without forcing schools into narrow definitions of success like only using math and reading test scores for assessment. Performance contracts, inspections, or granting accreditors more discretionary powers could provide oversight and safeguards so that families can avoid choosing schools that might actively do their child harm. Within these types of guidelines, parents should have wide latitude to find the school that best fits their child’s needs, even if it does not fit conventional definitions of quality schooling.

Just as individual schools till the educational soil, seed knowledge, and weed out bad habits to produce fully developed students, we can garden our entire school system. Tilling creates space for new schools to grow, planting provides seeds for new schools to bloom, and weeding keeps schools from stifling student growth within the educational garden. With diligent work, a beautiful crop of new academic opportunities will emerge.


Thomas, E. (2010, March 5). Why we must fire bad teachers. Newsweek. Retrieved from


von Hayek, F. A. (2014). The pretence of knowledge. In B. Caldwell (Ed.). The market and other orders. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Walcott, D. (2012, April 26). Close bad schools, save their students. New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/close-bad-schools-save-students-article-1.1067526

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 19, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21646, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 9:46:43 AM

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