How is innovation implemented?

February 24, 2016 • Ted Kolderie

We in Education Evolving (E|E) seem to be identified with ‘innovation’; less, though, with what innovation is than with the thorny question of how to get it to happen. If pressed ourselves to define our role we’re likely to say it’s “to increase the system capacity for change”.

For years those of us involved have worked to improve the incentives in public K-12 . . . defining ‘incentive’ as a reason combined with an opportunity. Success requires both. If organizations get an opportunity to change but no reason to use that opportunity, nothing happens. Give them a reason to change but no opportunity and nothing results—except frustration. In education policy, inter-district open enrollment created an incentive in that sense by giving districts a reason to make the changes they had always had the opportunity to make. The introduction of chartering gave districts a reason to change while also enlarging their opportunity to do so.

We naturally hope to see innovation when incentives are created—new and different ideas about what to teach and how to learn, or new ideas about how to organize school. But E|E itself states no preference for one innovation over another. We hope and expect that, with the incentives available, a continuing process of innovation will develop.

Others, focused on designing new models, seem hardly to be thinking at all about implementing their innovations; about how their new model will get into the system. In the first round of the new $50-million “XQ Super School” competition, for example, the applications will be judged solely on their designs; will not have to explain at all how they plan to get their new design into the system. ‘Implementation’ is scheduled for round two—but will mean asking applicants how they plan to set up and operate the new school itself. That misses the most important question about implementation: Where in the system do they plan to put the new design and how do they propose to get it in?

Is the idea to locate the school in public K-12? If so, in its district sector or in its chartered sector? Is the new design to be put into an existing school, or into a school created new? Will state government help, or not? Is it agreed the new design will be permanent or is it, from the beginning, understood to be ‘on trial’? What will be the continuing financing, as opposed to the ‘launch’ financing?

There is some history about such efforts to develop new designs. Coming out of the ‘summit’ of governors and corporate CEOs at Charlottesville, VA in 1989, there was agreement to launch an effort at “break the mold” schools. Something over $40 million was raised; almost 700 projects applied.

RAND, contracted to do the concurrent evaluation of the implementation, reported something less than success with the effort to push new designs into existing schools in the district sector only. Its final 1998 report: A Decade of Whole-School Reform, The New American Schools Experience, came to a conclusion sobering for those hoping to see real innovation:

Externally developed education reform interventions cannot be “break the mold” and still be marketable and implementable in current district and school contexts. NAS attempted to have both “break the mold” designs and designs that would appeal and be implemented nationally. It faced and still faces a fundamental market issue. The evidence of our evolution analysis and the implementation analyses all point to the fact that schools did not have a ready place for these designs. Schools were not by and large fertile ground for “break the mold” ideas, often because of a lack of capacity or local, state, or district regulations. Rather, the designs had to change to be suitable to school conditions or simply not be implemented. Design team calls for significant school autonomy over budget, staffing, curriculum, instruction, and assessments often did not fit into the institutional infrastructure that schools faced. Under these conditions the designs often settled for approaches that called for marginal improvements over time. In order for the design to be well implemented, the district and school contexts have to change to allow for “break the mold” school-level ideas to flourish.

Some efforts to introduce new models of school, that proceeded differently, have had better success. Ron Wolk, the former founding editor of Education Week, told me, for example, the story of Big Picture Company (BPC) of which he was board chair until two years ago. Here’s what I heard:

  • Its start-up was different. It did not try to push into existing schools. A businessman in Providence, RI—Stanley Goldstein, founder of the CVS Pharmacies—brought Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor down from New Hampshire to base at Brown University. Peter McWalters was Rhode Island’s commissioner of education. He got Dennis and Elliot a contract with the state to design a new school—which became The Met; then got state legislation to establish a new, statewide district in which that school was the only school. It personalizes learning; relating to the needs and abilities of the individual student; making the work relevant to the individual student. Students spend two days a week off campus in a “learning internship” that they work out with their advisor, parent, and community mentor.
  • Its scale-up was also different. They did not set out to push change at K-12 education; simply to operate this new and different school and tell others about it if they were interested. As word got around interest did develop; people began to ask: Would you help us do one of these, too? Tom Vander Ark, then at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, visited The Met; liked it; gave the parent organization—Big Picture Learning—money to work with people in other communities wanting to replicate the model. Some of the schools are in the chartered sector but most are in the district sector. Local people must be committed to make the school a permanent part of the district portfolio. Today there are about 100 BPC schools—with about half, interestingly, outside America; in The Netherlands, Australia, Israel, and Canada.

Recently I’ve been talking with Jim Rickabaugh about an effort out of southeast Wisconsin that seems similar. (Rickabaugh did a tour as superintendent in Minnesota—at Burnsville—before returning to Wisconsin.) Superintendents in the CESA1 region, he says, asked themselves why they were making so little progress in improving learning when working so hard. “We concluded we did not have an effort problem; we had a design problem” Jim says. So they created an initiative aimed at personalizing learning: See The Institute for Personalized Learning. Quietly, in the background, the state helps; the state superintendent clears away obstacles. As was the experience of Big Picture, others have come to them, asking to join. The original network of 28 districts has expanded to about 48, now in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Minnesota (Chaska).

Innovation, as I wrote in The Split-Screen Strategy, is essentially people trying things. Coming up with a new design falls short, however appealing the school model, however widely it is acclaimed and however well the school itself might be organized and implemented. There has to be a way into the system; has to be a method by which the new model will spread.

We’re thinking more and more now that approaches like this might be the key to getting innovation to happen . . . wondering if voluntary-adoption, one school or one district at a time, might be a feasible method; that implementation might come without legislation—superintendents genuinely seeking real change working with teachers seeking professional roles.

Certainly it seems imperative for those now working on, spending very large sums of money on, ‘new school designs’ to be asking themselves the question: How will these innovations get into the system?

But . . . are they?