What’s Innovative?

There’s a discussion over at the National Journal ed blog about whether or not the federal i3 program rewarded innovation.*  This is a good discussion to have, but I’m worried that some education opinion makers have an awfully narrow view of what innovation is.  Here’s Diane Ravitch:

It is not innovation that we need, but an effective educational system, where teacher recruitment and preparation are highly valued, where the teaching profession is respected, where principals are known as master teachers, where the curriculum is rich and broad, where assessment eschews bubble-guessing, and where attention is paid to the quality of children’s lives.

I have no idea why any of these things would be incompatible with innovation.  If none of the elements illustrated above are currently in place, it seems definitionally innovative to put them in place.  Innovation isn’t just software and productivity increases (although that stuff can be important).  Let’s look at another field for illustration.  One of the most powerful and innovative recent ideas in health care has not been the use of powerful drugs, nor the use of robot surgeons, but rather the checklist.  And no, “checklist” isn’t a code word for some radical new software platform … it’s just a simple list of things that healthcare providers should do in order to practice medicine more effectively.  If you’re curious and want to dig deeper, read Atul Gawande’s book on the topic.

The point being, if recruiting different kinds of teachers, implementing stronger assessments, and creating better instructional leaders were all just a matter of waving a magic wand, someone would have waved it already.

Shorter, glibber version from my office mate and School Turnaround Group managing director Meredith Liu: “Let’s not innovate, let’s just have better schools that teach kids.”

*Full disclosure, we filed a proposal that wasn’t selected.

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4 Responses to What’s Innovative?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What’s Innovative? « Meeting the Turnaround Challenge -- Topsy.com

  2. john thompson says:

    We should all agree with you, your officemate, Diane Ravitch, Atul Gwande, etc, that checklists, schools where teacher recruitment and preparation are highly valued, where the teaching profession is respected, where principals are known as master teachers, where the curriculum is rich and broad, where assessment eschews bubble-guessing, and where attention is paid to the quality of children’s lives are great principles for school turnarounds.

    I see the connection between the logic of your recent posts, Rudy Crew’s observation, the thrust of Sam Dillon’s report and others about the dangers of fly-by night turnarounds. After all I saw firsthand the damage done in only six months when John Q, Porter, who Dillon mentioned, and an otherwise talented person, jumped in tried to reform a district based on hypotheses from the Broad school without taking time to listen and learn.

    For the life of me, though, I can’t understand your takeaway from the previous post. Why in the world would you put so much stress on metrics. We need intelligent consumers of the full range of evidence. We are years away, if not decades away from being able to measure educational effectiveness. Why not concentrate on blocking and tackling? Invest in measurements that SOMEDAY will be useful. But being a good consumer of research means being reality-based. Numbers are just one small part of reality.

    Full disclosure: I defeated Porter in a Buffalo chip throwing contest. He was a great sport to participate. I sure regret losing him, but he should have listened to Human Nature 101, learned something about urban schools before trying revolutionary change, made decisons based on evidence not ideology, and allowed for debate and discussion. The sad sad truth, I believe, is that the potential harm of failed turnarounds is much greater than the potential benefits. We should listen to Ravitch and realize its much easier to avoid unforced errors than to clean them up afterwards.

  3. Steve Peha says:

    I’m with you and Ms. Liu, Justin (though also not against Mr. Thompson and Ms. Ravitch). I’ve participated in many very simple things that may not have been called “innovative” but that seemed to produce such unusual results that they were termed “innovative” after the fact.

    In virtually all cases, the “innovations” in question simply enabled teachers to teach more effectively and kids to learn more effectively. In this sense, innovation in education is not rocket science.

    I’m not a huge test score guy, but I’d rather have measurements of something than no measurements at all. Some simple metrics that I have helped to “innovate” look like this:

    1. A 4000% increase in one year in the number of pieces written by a 3rd grade class.

    2. A 5000% increase in one year in the number of books read by 9th grade ESL students.

    3. A 30% increase in test scores (averaged across three tests) by one school in one year using only a handful of tiny — but innovative! — instructional changes.

    4. A 14% gain in usable instruction time with the implementation of three simple classroom management procedures.

    As one of the “innovators in question” in these examples, none of the things I did were new or even particularly “shocking” — at least to me. But they got great results that the people getting them thought were highly unusual given the low cost of implementation and the ease with these “mini-vations” could be scaled.

    When it comes to changing schools, there’s only one question worth answering: How do we get more kids to learn more things in less time?

    Sometimes, in some places, merely answering that question directly is considered “innovative”. Sometimes it’s just all in a day’s work.

    Steve Peha
    President, Teaching That Makes Sense

  4. Pingback: Tough on Innovation « Meeting the Turnaround Challenge

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