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Hey, Beacon Hill: Mass. needs an R&D budget for education

To really reinvent public education requires consistent, ongoing investments in new ideas. Only the state can do it.

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If public schools didn’t already exist, people would probably find it impossible to imagine them. They’re a remarkable American innovation. But no one institution — however remarkable — can fit everyone perfectly.

Many students don’t find traditional school a great fit, and for the past four years, I’ve been working with a small group in Somerville to develop a different kind of school. We’ve drawn inspiration from creative workplaces — artists’ studios, research labs, engineering firms, and so on.

Throughout this process, we’ve heard people complain about how slowly schools move forward. It’s not true that schools don’t get better. They’ve made great strides in increasing access for students and professionalizing teaching, for example. What’s been harder is coming up with ways to address chronic issues or spur leaps in achievement.

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Every field has its mix of improvement and invention. Sometimes the next big step just needs time or money or the political will to wrangle passage of a new bill. But sometimes no one knows the next step. That’s when we need inventions. And inventing in education is harder than you’d think.

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For one thing, there isn’t a place to try really ambitious initiatives that go beyond one class period or subject. And the types of things you can change when you take traditional classrooms as your base mostly limit you to iterative improvements. That kind of progress is important. But it isn’t invention.

To really try out new ideas in education, you need lots of time — all day, every day, for a few years — with a truly diverse group of young people. If you don’t have lots of time, you can’t attempt something ambitious, or at least can’t measure long-term impact. And without diversity (socioeconomic, cultural, academic, and otherwise), your work isn’t relevant to public schools.

Some say charter schools could be the answer. And when the American Federation of Teachers first backed charter schools in 1988, they did aim to be sandboxes for new ideas that could be transferred to school districts.

But charters haven’t been able to deliver on that promise, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, sure, it’s district politics. Sometimes the charter’s model is unsustainable, depending on underpaid staff or a nonrepresentative student body.

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Whatever the reasons, even the staunchest charter school expansionists can’t deny the numbers. Despite the tremendous pressure applied and money invested, today barely 4 percent of Massachusetts kids attend a charter. About as many are home-schooled. And you’d be hard pressed to call many of those charters’ models “inventive.”

So, the vast majority of American kids will be in regular public school districts for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, these districts have all the expertise and nearly all the power they need to explore and invent, especially when supported by legislation like 2010’s Massachusetts Innovation Schools initiative. That legislation gives districts the flexibility to transform their policies around everything from staffing to budgeting, getting further flexibility from the state where needed.

So far, few districts have had the time or money to take full advantage of this flexibility. But I’m part of an effort to start a new high school in Somerville called Powderhouse Studios. We’re figuring out how to reorganize school so creative, personally meaningful projects sit at the center of students’ experience, while retaining the rigor parents and taxpayers expect. We’ve found creating this requires reinvention — from moving beyond a normal school day (and school year) to the dismantling of traditional subject boundaries.

This is hard work. It’s taken us four years to redesign details of everything about a school, from the fiscal controls needed to support buying supplies for individualized projects to a union contract fair to Somerville teachers. Maybe others could have done it faster, but it’s all real work that must happen if you’re going to do things differently.

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And we’ve only been able to do it because we’ve been very lucky. Then-governor Deval Patrick, his secretary of education Paul Reville, and others worked to pass the Innovation Schools legislation. Somerville’s mayor, Joe Curtatone, convinced us to to start a school using that legislation. Our superintendent, Mary Skipper, and Somerville’s School Committee have supported us throughout. The Barr Foundation, XQ Institute, EDUCAUSE, and others helped patch together the financial support needed to let us spend four years developing Powderhouse Studios.

And even with all that, we still aren’t open. We’re hoping to bring our proposal before the Somerville School Committee for a vote this fall. If it’s been this long for us, with all our advantages, how hard will it be for others?

We believe Powderhouse can be a model for ambitious, in-district innovation. But as a state, we can’t rely on lucky breaks to give education innovators the years they need to develop ambitious plans.

Imagine two buckets. In one bucket, we put all the dollars and hours people devote to improving existing schools. In the other, we put the dollars and hours people devote to inventing new schools. Right now, the Invention bucket is almost empty compared to the Improving bucket. That can’t be the ratio if we’re going to see big new ideas for our public schools. Wherever you fall politically or pedagogically, you need some idea of what the ratio ought to be.

Massachusetts should be the first state to invest in substantial statewide funding to support long-term, in-district research and development. We can draw on examples like the National Science Foundation or venture capital, institutions that make targeted investments in speculative ideas, trying new things that eventually become the foundation of future innovations.

In 2018, Massachusetts is going to spend $7 billion on education. Just 1 percent of that is enough to kick-start more than a hundred new school designs every single year. We need Beacon Hill to step up for school-design R&D, because even tiny shifts would have tremendous impact.

Alec Resnick is a co-founder of Powderhouse Studios, a new high school and R&D organization in Somerville. Previously, he designed and developed educational tools, toys, and programs. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.