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Innovation In Education Takes Many Forms

by Jeanne Allen
July 17, 2019


Dennis Littky is a radical, fascinating and successful education rebel. He’s a serial education entrepreneur who’s redefining the term “higher education.” The former principal of Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire, cofounder of both  The Big Picture Company and The Met School has launched the best of his innovations yet: College Unbound, a “Bachelor’s degree completion program designed around an innovative, personalized, interest/project-based curriculum model” for adults, especially those who can’t afford the time or money it takes to leave their jobs or their families to hang out on increasingly irrelevant college campuses. It’s the epitome of the “k through career” vision that 21st-century education must embrace to stay relevant. 

“Everyone is always saying, ‘students gotta be college-ready,’” Littky said in his gravelly voice, “I’m saying, ‘colleges need to be student-ready!'”

College Unbound pays close attention to the needs of the student. “We meet at night, when students can meet. There’s always food there. There’s always babysitting there. You might think that’s stupid and little, but it allows them to be there,” Littky said. This makes sense, of course,  if you’re trying to help adults complete their education. We all know the smallest of challenges can keep you from the most important endeavors. Just think how hard it is to get to the grocery store or the gym when you have kids or a job!


Researchers exploring attitudes and effectiveness of higher education are discovering that relevance plays an enormous role in whether and how people sustain their education.  According to the Strada Education Network, which has surveyed more than 110,481 adults, aged 18 to 65, who are currently employed and have taken at least some college courses, “only 26% of working U.S. adults with college experience strongly agree that their education is relevant to their work and day-to-day life.  Consumer ratings of relevance are more powerful predictors of quality and value than demographic characteristics of individuals, their fields of study and their level of education. Relevance better predicts quality and value than gender, race, ethnicity, age, income, field of study, and attainment level.”

To ensure that their students are not only engaged but see the relevance of their education, College Unbound’s curriculum is entirely project-based.  “If a course is in writing, we ask each student to write about their own life experiences,” Littky said. “So the idea is to use who you are -- you’re 49 years old, you’re 35 years old -- use that experience to get out and to be transformed.”

And we all know that that’s what it’s going to take to make a difference in the lives of so many who are denied educational opportunity in America: radically meaningful approaches to learning and getting credentialed, spearheaded by rebels like Dennis Littky.

Of course, as we all know, the problem begins much earlier. Most students entering college are not prepared for those challenges, with 40% of students at four-year college and 66% of students at community college needing remedial education. The cost of high schools graduating functional illiterates is an estimated $1.3 billion annually. So is college really the problem? High school should produce people who are literate, whether they become plumbers, professors, managers or “just” parents."

In North Carolina, James McDougald and Ben Chavis, are trying to bring innovation to rural education. These two unlikely friends grew up in economically disadvantaged Robeson County, North Carolina’s most rural, more than 40 years ago. College scholarships propelled McDougald to Wake Forest University, where he became a football star and eventually played for the NFL. He now serves a head of the City Council of Maxton. Once the largest community in Robeson County, a thriving hub, Maxton has faded with the decline of tobacco and the closing of a local Air Force base.

Chavis, a Lumbee Indian, graduated from the University of Arizona with his BA in education. After receiving his doctorate, he took his passion to education founding one of the most successful charter schools in America: Oakland, California’s American Indian Charter school,which catalyzed new school opportunities in a gang-infested area of Oakland before anyone else would consider opening a school. Both McDougald and Chavis chose to return to their roots to try to bring back education excellence to their parts of rural America, following the job loss and isolation these regions have endured for more than a quarter century.

“James and I grew up here,” Chavis said. “We both went to major universities - we were prepared to go off and get an education. But why is it we were prepared to go off and be successful, and today kids are not. We know the kids have the ability - it’s not the kids, it’s not the parents, it’s not the families, it’s not the community - we need better schools. It’s not about race,” Chavis says. “It’s about preparedness.”

The city official McDougald counsels that dramatically improving schools is also the key to economic development in rural areas. 

“When you educate a populace, people want to come to where you are,” he says. “If you had great schools in Robeson County, you would have great roads.”


“Our students today are brighter, smarter - but they aren’t challenged. And that’s the problem that we have. If you’re not challenged, you’re not going to make it.” That’s why both support any opportunities to bring education urgently to Robeson County. “I’m for charter schools, private schools, public schools, whatever works for our kids. But the system we have right now is not working,” Chavis says.

These are but three of the thousands of visionary leaders from vastly different parts of the world, working to reconnect education and work with innovative ideas. They’re destined to pull American public education out of its tailspin, and back in the business of strengthening lives, families, communities, and the country.