Transforming America's Schools

By:Allan Jones Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Academics School

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon told the world that, “Knowledge is power.” Nations have risen and have tumbled drastically based on the cumulative knowledge of its people. America is no different. While we have spent many years at the top in innovation and the subsequent power that followed, our time may be ending if we do not address the problems of our K-12 public school system. Collectively, three Discovery and Innovation schools at the Tracy Learning Center (TLC) in Tracy, California are doing exactly that.

What are Schools of Discovery and Innovation?

The TLC is a collection of three schools, elementary, middle and high school, with a combined enrollment of roughly 1,200 students. Children are encouraged to start at the elementary level to ensure that their natural curiosity and genetic need to learn are nurtured from an early age. TLC has implemented a comprehensive set of integrated best-practices called the Discovery Learning System (DLS). The DLS program provides a subscription service to transform existing K-12 public schools into Discovery and Innovation schools.

It is a transformation model using existing facilities and a retrained staff, not a takeover and manage model.

There are about 133,000 K-12 schools in America; over 100,000 of them are public schools. In the United States, public schools are part of the rich fabric of our culture, so replacing all public schools with charter schools is not an option. And while the DLS model can be implemented in either a public or a charter school, it is our existing public schools that we must transform. In the DLS model, the neighborhood school is restored to its historic central role in the community; it becomes the academic, athletic, social, healthcare, cultural, and economic hub.

Rather than select a few best practices, DLS designed a totally transformed system that integrates all of the student-centered and proven organizational research-based best practices into a comprehensive subscription service. From its inception, a fundamental design criterion was that the system must be transformational and scalable.

The K-12 DLS model empowers teachers to run the school and customize learning for every child in a multidisciplinary project-based, small-group learning environment. As a result, the two major national teachers’ unions have indicated that they support the model for transforming schools. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts are integrated into every project, beginning in elementary school. The three schools operate on a longer school day and school year allowing the high school to require 200 hours of community service for graduation. The longer schedule also enables students to take college courses while still in high school and to participate in internships.

Technology infrastructure is also a key component of the model. DLS is working with AT&T to design, deliver, manage, maintain and support a comprehensive district-wide technology infrastructure that connects to a national broadband backbone. Home access will be provided to disadvantaged students, and as a result, the DLS program can provide a level of digital equity long dreamed of, but never achieved. And finally, this access to resources will be instrumental since school days and school years are now longer. It is critical that all students have equal access to all of the learning resources, from teachers to technology.

While this customized education model allows all students to achieve at the peak of their ability, it also allows them to prepare for college, other professions, or trades. Because the students become empowered learners, they are confident that they can learn whatever they need in order to be successful. The school has been in operation for over eight years with a current total enrollment of about 1,200 students. Because the curriculum and learning model are engaging, and because teachers do not “teach to the test,” they have eliminated student boredom and teacher burnout. As a result, there have been zero dropouts and zero teacher defections so far.

DLS has developed a plan for transforming every school in the country. The goal is to provide the model for transformation, prove that the transformation can occur, and that the results will be remarkable. DLS hopes to transform 1,350 schools in the next five years; at that point, they believe the market will step in and assist in transforming the rest of the schools. They believe the remaining 100,000 schools will be transformed over the following ten years. In addition to preparing America’s future workforce, the implementation of the program will create over a million new private-sector, non-exportable, skilled jobs across the country, because the subscription service coordinates and delivers a wide-range of outsourced services from technology infrastructure to primary healthcare services.

Currently, DLS is working with a nonprofit called the Power of Us Foundation to achieve the transformation. The foundation is dedicated to transforming K-12 education and has selected the DLS model as its first effort. The program will begin by extending the Tracy DLS program across the state of California to at least 100 schools. As funding and other resources become available, the Power of Us will continue to assist in growing support for transforming more schools with the goal of transforming 1,350 schools across the country.

To be clear, DLS is not simply mass-producing widgets; they are transforming schools. So reaching the tipping point in this model does not imply that they can greatly reduce the cost or time it takes to lead a school district through the transformation process. In this model the tipping point is a psychological point, where the demand for transforming additional schools and/or districts rises exponentially. The foundation is cooperating with the Commission to Transform K-12 Education to generate funding to cover the costs of these 1,350 transformations.

TLC is operating the program within the budget provided from federal, state, and local support. However, there is an incremental cost for the transformation. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan estimated that it would cost between $4 million and $6 million to transform a school, but the DLS transformation can be accomplished for $2 million.

The initial schools will be selected with the cooperation and insight of leaders from the various participating local, state, and national agencies with encouragement from grassroots organizations like the Power of Us. In order to receive the $2 million to pay for the transformation, every district that elects to participate must sign a binding agreement obligating them to complete the activities essential to ensure sustainable transformation. The number and location of schools comes from the following model.

In addition to demonstrating the effectiveness of the educational program, transforming the initial 1,350 schools will enable DLS to refine and improve the effectiveness of the implementation program and transformation process, as well as identify and correct any scalability issues. Furthermore, the distribution of schools based on expectations ensures that the network of transformed schools has representation across the country.

The identification of schools will be made by the Commission to Transform K-12 Education working in conjunction with the DLS research center through letters of interest submitted by school district superintendents. The Power of Us will provide resources to local grassroots organizations to assist them in their efforts. The final selection will be made based on established criteria and applied to all districts submitting a request for participation.

By implementing a comprehensive system for transformation, DLS can help retain critical creative knowledge with elementary school aged children, while re-engaging older children in a more imaginative way. DLS is a model that can and will change the way we prioritize education across the United States. Once parents, educators, and legislators see the possibilities and the improvements being made in K-12 public schools, a shift can happen, once again, establishing the United States as a leader on the world stage through education, innovation, and discovery and by bringing to light the passion and the imagination that can be reignited in the youth of our country.

Successful Education Reform Models Being Implemented Across the Country

The following are other “model” programs that are having a positive impact on children and should continue to be supported as we learn more about how they are impacting students. These programs have implemented a selected set of best practices with great rigor, strong leadership, and have achieved excellent results.

  • Green Dot - Green Dot transforms large public high schools into clusters of high-performing smaller schools with strong ties to the community. Green Dot also operates its schools with its own staff. Their graduation rate is not available on their website.
  • KIPP – KIPP is a charter school program focused on college preparatory students and starts in the fifth grade with an average dropout rate of about 10% per year. KIPP does not transform existing schools; they open new public charters. KIPP operates its schools with KIPP employees.
  • Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) – HCZ is a remarkable island of learning and social stability located in a neighborhood that was neither of those. The combination of learning and social programs provided to the students is achieving excellent results, but it is also being heavily subsidized with foundation and federal grant money. This latter fact makes it hard to consider as a scalable model for transformation. On the other hand, it is a wonderful place to test and demonstrate what is possible.


Allocation of Demonstration School Sites
Category/Selection Criteria for Demo School Sites Quantity of Schools
2 for every senator 100
2 for every representative 870
1 in every state capitol including D.C. 51
1 to every governor 50
50 to U.S. Secretary of Education 50
25 schools in Iowa 25
All public schools in Delaware 175
DoD dependent schools (400 total) 29
Total 1,350