Lessons Learned in The Highs and Lows of Being a Model Provider

New Classrooms partners with schools as an education model provider, which brings both challenges and benefits

When we launched New Classrooms as an independent nonprofit organization, some urged us to become a Charter Management Organization (CMO) and run our own schools. We have great respect for the efforts of many leading CMOs who are working to bring a world class education to every student regardless of background or ZIP code. The best have posted results once thought impossible, and, along the way, changed the life trajectories of tens of thousands of students.

In the end, we decided not to be a CMO but to instead attempt to call ourselves a “model provider.” (We don’t love that name… and would welcome better ideas). We use the word “model” to signify that, unlike a discrete technology product, Teach to One provides a holistic classroom solution that reimagines the use of time, talent, and technology to personalize learning for students. As a model provider, we would attempt to implement our model within schools that were managed directly by another entity (e.g. school district, CMO, independent board).

Over the last few years, we’ve learned a few things about the benefits and drawbacks of being a model provider. As others consider whether to venture down this path, hopefully our experiences will help to inform their choices.

We see two key benefits in being a model provider (in relation to a CMO):

  • Oxygen for R&D. Organizations have limited capacities. Google doesn’t sell lattes. GM doesn’t make airplanes. If the goal is to design a new model that reimagines teaching and learning, it’s harder to do that if you have to worry about hiring teachers, covering bus duty, maintaining facilities, and ensuring high quality instruction. Districts and CMOs typically have limited R&D capacity, both in dollars and in expertise. We are now several years into a model that is just focused on middle grade mathematics and have gone through several iterations of R&D in that very narrow strand.
  • Scalability. Schools are already accustomed to buying textbooks, assessments, technology, instructional materials, and professional development for their teachers. Models are simply a replacement for something schools already buy. And since teachers remain district employees and operate within the contours of applicable union agreements, there isn’t the political radioactivity that sometimes characterize charter schools.

On the other hand, we see two key drawbacks to being a model provider:

  • Lack of Control. By choosing to work in schools we don’t control, we have to deal with decisions that we might not make in schools that we directly managed. There are times when schoolwide issues (e.g. school culture, leadership) hamper our impact. It can be harder to influence teacher practices than it would be if we managed the school directly. There may also be budget issues, leadership changes, or shifting district and school priorities, all of which can affect performance and even result in partnerships ending (sometimes against our wishes). And all of this can color the perception of our work.
  • Results Attribution. Because CMOs control both the staffing and the instructional program that students receive, it’s far easier to attribute causation to their efforts. As a model provider, conclusively teasing out the impact of a model provider requires a more refined counterfactual—how would this school have done in math in the absence of Teach to One? Beyond that, issues outside of our control such as staffing changes, big enrollment fluctuations, or connectivity issues can all impact outcomes. While we’ve been open and transparent about all of the results of schools using Teach to One: Math, we will ultimately need more sophisticated methodologies to tease out a causal effect.

As an organization, our theory of change is focused on demonstrating that there’s a better way of doing school. If we can show an alternate, credible vision, we believe that will help to catalyze more organizations exploring new ways of reimagining the classroom.

We believe that a credible, alternative approach requires deep, thoughtful R&D around the model itself. That’s why for us, the choice to continue to operate as a model provider is an easy one. We just don’t think we’d have the oxygen for the R&D we want to do if we were also running whole schools.

But to help mitigate some of the risks associated with serving as a model provider, we’ve adopted the following key principles to help guide our work.

  • Pick schools that are ready. It’s critical to operate in schools that have the readiness factors to be successful, something we’ve gotten much better at identifying over the last few years. In the earliest years, it’s also critical to screen for teachers who are excited for the rapid iteration that’s required for transformative R&D to happen. It’s not for everyone.
  • Balance long term learning and teacher satisfaction. For model providers, teacher satisfaction is especially critical—their dissatisfaction can end partnerships fast. But sometimes R&D requires upending solutions that appear to be working to learn something that might work even better. There are also times when model providers might need to serve as a critical friend to teachers, challenging and supporting them to enhance their effectiveness. We’ve come to learn that solving just for teacher satisfaction isn’t the right answer; the goal, after all, should be new models that are able to demonstrate great results and improve the professional experience for teachers.
  • Assume some attrition. No matter how carefully the front-end screening happens, stuff happens. Schools are complex institutions, and there are times when a partnership just no longer makes sense for one or both parties. It’s ok. Life will go on.

Since introducing Teach to One in 2012, we’ve iterated and refined the model again and again, making changes both big and small. But well into our third program year, after two years of significant student growth, we’re moving past a period of heavy innovation and iteration into one of more consistency.

There are days where we wish we were a CMO. In some ways, our work would be far easier.

But on balance, we’re confident that if, as a model provider, we can continue to show strong academic gains without formally running the school, we will be in the best position to achieve our long term goals.

Joel Rose and Chris Rush

Joel Rose is the Co-Founder and CEO of New Classrooms. Chris Rush is the Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer of New Classrooms.