In 2013, Mat Honan wrote an article for WIRED called Why Subtraction Is the Hardest Math in Product Design. He points out that simplicity sticks, saying it has “made hits of the Nest thermostat, Fitbit, and TiVo. Simple brought Apple back from the dead. It’s why you have Netflix. The Fisher Space Pen, the Swiss Army Knife, and the Rolex Oyster Perpetual are some of our most enduring products.” Pointing a finger at the 33-button microwave, he goes on to argue that electronics have become more complex and less usable.
What is the problem? He quotes Mike Monteiro to answer the question: “We live in a culture of consumption, where quality is associated with more. So designers and manufacturers tend to believe that to succeed you have to provide more. What if Microsoft announced that the next version of Office had 75 percent less functionality? It would be usable!”
He argues that even Apple and Google have fallen into the complexity trap at times, succumbing to market pressure to provide more features (clunking search results with ads or making iTunes so cluttered that playing music is difficult).
In the context of products, simple is often better because it makes products more usable. Many of the most iconic or enduring products (Google, the microwave, the radio), do one thing and do it very well. Schools, on the other hand, have historically been asked to be many things to many students – emotional supporter, college preparer, career or tech prep, babysitter, social coordinator, physical trainer, parent organizers…and so on. Beyond “educate” (which can mean almost anything), many schools have lost any singular purpose around which to design themselves.
As a result, their designs are complex. When achievement slows, courses, activities, and practices are added until teachers, students, and even principals are at a loss to know what is driving or stalling that achievement. Seldom is a program dropped or thoroughly evaluated.
Furthermore, at the typical district-managed school, programs and activities have often been thrown together chef-salad style. That is, the more the better. To supplement the “core” math, reading, arts and sciences programs (series of classes) – the district has added tutoring, advisories, credit recovery, extended learning, hosts of clubs, sports, and electives. Meanwhile, standards and curricula have gotten more complex each year. Some of the practices could be effective in the context of a whole school redesign. But as a whole, they are incoherent.
One of the reasons so many programs have been piled into the school day is that so many district departments are trying to improve schools. Denver Public Schools has 9,547 employees across 75 departments working in some way to drive student achievement. None of these 9,547 employees are teachers. While some non-teaching staff is undoubtedly necessary to a functioning district, 75 departments suggests there is more than one cook in the kitchen.
Perhaps as an effort to streamline some of these departments, DPS recently announced areorganization.
This is the most dramatic change in school management since Tom Boasberg took over the school system in 2009. The new management structure will consolidate oversight of schools under the Chief Schools Officer, a new position recently filled by Susanna Cordova. Meanwhile, Chief Academic Officer, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, will oversee school support and the former OSRI department. This restructuring consolidates the reporting structure and clarifies how schools relate to the central office. Hopefully, it will also encourage academic offices to support, rather than burden, schools. This may mean breaking down district silos and having fewer points of contact for schools so that they can address challenges more quickly.
Simplification of the management of schools will be critical if we are to allow school leaders to effectively manage their staff, programs, time, and budget. We must provide goals, flexibility, and support. The new Denver Plan has begun to outline these goals. Now, the challenge will be to make sure we have the right school leaders in place and focus resources on redesigning schools to most effectively meet these goals.
As Honan says: “Simplicity is actually quite simple. It requires paring things away when market forces tell you to add. It means removing layers rather than adding them. In short, all it takes is a bit of courage.”