Why We Are Engaging in This Work

by Erin Mote, InnovateEDU

When I joined the field of education only eight years ago from the technology sector, I was surprised to learn that organizations focused on similar issues didn’t work together more often. Why didn’t a solution that worked in Oakland, CA find roots in Brooklyn, NY? Why did every national leader, school system, school leader, and administrator who I talked to speak about the unique characteristics of their population, community, or school when I shared thoughts about practice that worked elsewhere and could be scaled to work in their school or to address their challenge? I used to see this as an “I am a special snowflake” problem. But, it isn’t a snowflake problem at all. Rather, it’s a pie problem. 

My experience—with both practitioners and the funder community—is that organizations in this sector see our work as a pie. If I have a slice, then someone else doesn’t get a slice. And, I must work to keep my slice. This is the concept of the fixed pie. Researchers for decades have been studying the idea of the fixed pie as the counterfactual to successful partnerships and productive social change. Don’t believe me: ask the Harvard Negotiation Project where Roger Fisher and William Ury have studied conflict resolution and negotiation since 1977. 

Education should by its nature not be pie. It is a common good that is unequally distributed across zip codes and reflective of our nation’s most painful scars, but also its greatest opportunities. This idea of the fixed pie needs to be radically disrupted if we are to address large-scale systemic challenges in education—from the opportunity gap to our current talent crisis. As a country, we are drastically behind our peers in preparing our young people, not just for the jobs of the future, but for today's jobs. While we have made massive strides in many areas as a nation, we are losing ground when it comes to our young people being prepared to meet this moment and the challenges before them. The World Economic Forum Global Competitive Index ranks the United States below Saudi Arabia in terms of the quality of our future workforce, including measures of critical thinking skills and other aspects critical to working in dynamic, changing economies. We don’t even break the top ten. In 2019, for the first time the United States didn't rank #1 in the World Economic Forum Global Competitive Index. We lost our top spot to Singapore. The biggest shifts in the ranking that toppled us from the top spot: 1) labor forces, 2) education, 3) healthcare, and 4) infrastructure. We are failing and need to do better. 

So, I want to propose a new frame.  Instead of thinking about which slice of the pie belongs to me, we think about what is 80% common? The 80% common are the implementation, policy, and/or funding challenges that we all share as a sector. Focusing on the shared challenge rather than the intricacies of the local context can actually generate wide-scale, trajectory shifting change. Take the adoption of broadband connectivity through the modernization of E-Rate in schools within the last decade. In just under a decade—by focusing on the shared problem of a lack of high speed, cheap broadband connectivity for schools as the 80% common challenge—policy, funding, and implementation strategies were able to address barriers to reducing cost and complexity. The median cost of Internet access for schools has declined from $22 per Mbps in 2013 to just $2.25 today. In this example, the 80% common challenge became a 99% common solution. Today, 99% of America’s K-12 public schools have the fiber-optic connections needed to meet future connectivity needs. (Now let's apply that same logic to home connectivity and closing the homework gap made so visible by the global pandemic).

As a sector, we must challenge ourselves to find common ground. In order to enact large-scale change in education and to radically disrupt models that have existed for the past 100 years, we need to depart from questions about what makes us each unique to what makes us similar. We need to unite around systemic challenges that we can conquer with a mindset of 80% common. In software architecture, we refer to this orientation as configuration not customization. We build the common stem—the 80% of the technology that ensures you have a consistent experience—and then allow for 20% customization. Think about your icon and bio on Twitter or the filter you use on Instagram. That is the 20% customization on top of the 80% common.

This idea of 80% common is at the heart of The Pathways Alliance, an initiative that grew out of a community of practice that InnovateEDU created with The Learning Accelerator to address a systemic challenge in our space: namely, the ability to recruit, retain, and develop talent to meet the sector’s changing needs. We have pulled together eight core organizations to create a large-scale multi-stakeholder alliance that we hope grows to include hundreds of organizations from diverse geographies, verticals, and interests.  We have asked our founding partners to meet each other, understand models and priorities, and then find the 80% common. Not what makes them unique as a program, university, or organization, but what makes them alike. So with the principle of the 80% common, we are going to radically experiment with the idea and the conception of what would it look like to collaborate instead of compete? What would it look like if we deliberately designed without the idea of the fixed pie? What can we achieve if I can have a slice and you can too? That our shared challenges can become our collective win.

I have no idea if this is going to work. I might end up with pie on my face. But it’s worth a try.

  1. "Creating Value in Integrative Negotiations: Myth of the Fixed-Pie of Resources." Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation (blog). August 20, 2019.

  2. Schwab, Klaus (Ed.). “The Global Competetiveness Report 2019.” World Economic Forum. 2019.

  3. “The Typical School Network.” Educaion Superhighway. Last modified 2020.

  4. “2019: State of the States.” Education Superhighway.