How Open Can a School Be?

Applying Gittip’s “Open Company” concept to public schools

Chad Whitacre, founder of Gittip, has made a name for himself recently through his commitment to running Gittip as an “open company“.  Gittip is a platform that allows people to support each other’s work through anonymous, recurring donations.  A TechCrunch reporter contacted Chad recently, looking to interview him for a story about Gittip.  Chad agreed to the interview, as long as it could be done in the open – live streamed, and archived on YouTube.  The reporter replied something along the lines of, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

That refusal was actually the beginning of the story, because refusing a feature on TechCrunch is almost unheard of in the startup world.  Other journalists were intrigued by the notion of openness applied to the interview process, and took Chad up on his offer to do interviews in the open.  As a result, Gittip and the concept of an open company has received lots of attention over the past few days.

I am a teacher, and this has me wondering what a fully “open school” might look like.  I have a strong motivation to want more openness in schools.  I work at a small alternative school, where many students have not been served well by traditional school structures.  My colleagues and I are always looking to adopt best practices from other schools – not theory, which is easy to come by, but actual practice.  It’s harder to do than it sounds, though.  We hear about something a school does well, and we want to adopt that policy, but all we can find as far as documentation goes is a brief statement about the policy.  The actual practice lives in the minds of staff at that school, or in some unfinished internal documentation. In the past week, I have reached out to three principals and educational leaders at schools and institutions who are pushing effective reform models.  All three were more than willing to share their school’s practice, but said effectively, “Our documentation is not in a format that is ready to share.” If these schools were built from the ground-up with openness in mind, and if openness were an accepted part of educational culture, we would have an easier time replicating their success.

So, what would a fully “open school” look like?

I don’t know the answer to this question, just as Chad doesn’t know exactly what an open company looks like yet.  But we can identify a few features, and start building an open school:

  • A fat school handbook that is subject to continuous revision. In my outreach to other schools, the single most valuable document I have found is a school handbook that lays out the general philosophy of a school, and also includes detailed documentation of how that philosophy is carried out on a daily basis.  A good example is Casco Bay High School’s handbook, and Sanborn Regional High School’s description of its grading policy.  These documents are spelled out in enough detail that we can adapt their policies to our school, without having to pick the brains of those schools’ staff members.
  • A well-defined structure for educational standards, which supports continuous revision and the concept of “forking”.  Educational standards, for the most part, are handed to schools by outside bodies: state education departments, professional organizations, and now the Common Core. Schools should have the ability to modify educational standards on a continual basis, through well-defined processes to ensure that modifications are appropriate.  Schools should also have the ability to “fork” another school’s system.  Rather than starting from scratch, my school should be able to take a copy of your school’s work, and start iterating on your system in our own educational environment.  I have started an open project that would achieve these goals.
  • A portable format for curriculum plans, and a fully open tool for building curriculum. Most professions have defined digital file formats that make their work more efficient. But educators share their documentation, almost exclusively, in .doc and .pdf formats. This makes it extremely laborious, and effectively impossible, to iterate on each other’s work.  We need to define a standard for curriculum files; an xml or a JSON for curriculum plans.  Along with this, we need a fully open tool for creating and sharing curriculum.  This tool would be fairly easy to build, once a standard is agreed upon.  Then if you share your plans with me, I can easily restructure your plans into my preferred format, and begin iterating on your work. I have also written and spoken about this concept, in relation to open educational standards.


I am very happy to have one foot in the education world, and one foot in the software development world.  Developers have spent decades working out efficient workflows, and building tools to support those methodologies. We could make significant, rapid improvements to public education by applying some of these longstanding concepts to the educational environment.


About ehmatthes

Teacher, hacker, new dad, outdoor guy
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