The first house my wife and I owned was a corner rowhouse in Baltimore. The house was small and the yard was small, but there was a long fenceline with no trees overhead. We decided to put in an orchard. By the time we were done, we’d planted apples, pears, peaches, cherries, Italian and Santa Rosa plums, blueberries, and Concord grapes. Some worked out better than others, but at harvest season we were picking and canning a lot of fruit.
My involvement with our tiny orchard led me to find out about Luther Burbank, the botanist who developed many of the fruit varieties we know today in the late 1800s. He and later botanists over the years developed a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and flowers of all kinds.
Burbank had nothing to do with educational research, as far as I know, but the process he developed to create and test many fruit varieties has lessons for us in education.
Burbank’s better-tasting or hardy-growing or heat-tolerant varieties enabled fruit to improve dramatically in diversity and quality and to diminish in cost. All to the good. Some of the new fruits were enthusiastically adopted by farmers, because they knew their customers would buy them. Some did not work out, because they were not so tasty, difficult or expensive to grow, or hard to ship. But the ones that did work out, like the delicious Santa Rosa plums we grew in profusion in Baltimore, changed the world. Burbank developed the Russet potato, for example, which rescued Ireland and the rest of Europe from the potato famine.
Now imagine that Burbank’s fruit trees were instead treated like new educational programs. Opponents of innovative fruits would try to get governments to ban them. Proponents might try to get governments to require them. Governments themselves might try to regulate them.
As a result, fruit tree development might have withered or died on the vine.
In education, we need to adopt the approaches agriculture has used since the time of Benjamin Franklin to promote ever-better seeds, varieties, and techniques. Government, publishers, software developers, and others should be in a constant process of creating and evaluating effective methods. Governments should set standards for evaluation as well as funding a great deal of it. When proven programs exist, government at all levels should help make educators aware of the programs and the evidence, much as agricultural extension agents do with farmers.
What government should not do is require schools or districts to adopt particular programs. Instead, they should provide information and incentives, but leave the choices up to the schools. Agricultural extension agents tell farmers about new research, but it is up to them to use it or not. If they choose not to do so but their neighbors do, and their neighbors get bigger yields and higher profits, they are likely to change their minds soon enough.
Similarly, government should not limit the creativity and ideas that are being explored in order to promote one particular design. Innovations should be field driven and address a broad range of issues in different ways to discover what works. Imagine if Burbank and his colleagues were only permitted to experiment with one variety of produce. What might have happened if the Russet potato had never been discovered?
In education, government needs to jumpstart research, development, and dissemination, and it needs to honestly present the evidence and provide resources for educators to use to adopt and perhaps further test innovations. Burbank’s brilliant hybrids would have been local curiosities if the Stark Seed Company had not provided, well, seed funding and marketing support. Changing metaphors, government needs to provide the field, the ball, the rules, and serve as referee and cheerleader, but then let the teams compete in the full light of public view.
America’s students can become the best in the world, if we use the same strategies that have made it strong economically. Create policies favoring innovation and use of proven programs and then stand back. That’s all Luther Burbank needed to revolutionize fruit tree production, and it’s all educational research and development needs to transform teaching and learning.