In 2010 and 2011, Education Evolving ran an initiative specifically targeted at documenting and encourage the innovation happening in K-12. And at documenting the policy frameworks used by states and districts to encourage that innovation to happen. This page is a summary of that initiative.
In addition to what’s below, see:
- A summary of the zones of innovation appearing around the country as of 2011
- Some key elements of good policy within those innovation zones
- Blog posts from 2010 and 2011 where we profiled some of the innovations coming out of these zones
About the Movement: Getting Beyond Traditional School
There is a movement of innovation spreading about the country that is working toward the creation of a new generation of schools that are not merely new, but decidedly different in their approaches to learning and understanding of achievement. It is the unprecedented action by cities and states toward a re-alignment of their systems and processes to enable, encourage, and protect innovations that are remaking the fundamentals of teaching and learning.
It is about innovation-based reform—a strategy for improvement. Most of the reform strategy nationally thinks in terms of improving ‘content’: the standards, the curriculum, and its delivery. It assumes the traditional model of school. This is not sufficient. This country cannot get the performance it needs in K-12 with the schools it presently has.
Students, families, and teachers are demanding more types of schools to choose from. Willingness to fund business as usual is decreasing on the part of policy makers, philanthropists, and taxpayers.
So district and state leaders are responding with efforts at allowing new types of schools to form—some of which look very different than factory schools. The appearance of these new-school efforts is a major new development.
Those participating in the movement are putting in place a policy framework at state and local levels that create the capacity and conditions for innovation to occur. They are creating space to allow for rigorous development and application of new ideas by teachers, district leaders, and educational entrepreneurs. And they are encouraging innovation by the practitioners—the teachers—in the schools.
Defining Innovation Zones
An innovation zone is an organizational space in a local or state public education system where entrepreneurs are afforded the independence, authority, and incentive necessary to pursue innovation free from undue interference.
An innovation zone may be established by a state legislature, which has the ability to create the capacity and conditions for innovation inside the public system. Or an innovation zone may be established at the level of a city, as more and more districts are creating new and different schools alongside the existing.
In Disrupting Class Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen argues that policy makers must create separate spaces where fundamentally-different innovations in schooling may occur. Even organizations with the best of intentions, Christensen argues, often cannot fundamentally reform themselves inside established operations. The organization’s culture, its business model, and its profit formula all work against it.
Understanding this dynamic, education leaders and policy makers are choosing to run a split-screen strategy at reform. While continuing to work to improve the existing factory-style schools, they are developing robust R&D efforts inside innovation zones designed specifically for trying new things.
Why Innovation-Based Reform?
Improvement through innovation.
In many states and cities innovation is emerging as a means for achieving better results from schools. At a quickening pace school and policy leaders are coming to recognize that it is no longer possible to get the kind of performance our country needs with the schools we presently have.
And if we cannot get the performance the country needs with the schools it presently as, then new, different schools will need to be created. This requires a sustained effort at R&D that works alongside, but separate from, school operations presently underway.
Such a split-screen strategy—working to improve the existing operations while tirelessly exploring new—has allowed some of the world’s most prominent and complex organizations to adapt and improve while others are overtaken by changing times and conditions. It provides platforms on which to work on the many serious questions of performance and efficiency in education.
The principle barrier to change over the years has been the system. Public education was not designed for change. Fortunately we now know how to solve this system problem. City and state-level innovation zones make the creation of new schools possible as they provide space for proper R&D to occur. They are creating new space, encouraging serious innovations in schools. The availability of new and different schools means greater choice for students, for their families, and for teachers, too.
But creating the capacity for new school creation and for innovation is only one half of the strategy for school improvement. The Other Half of the Strategy involves serious entrepreneurship, in pursuit of new and better ways of accomplishing learning.
Most truly different schools will have to be created new.
As Clayton Christensen and others have shown, large organizations have a difficult time with changes that get at the fundamentals of how they operate. Their nature is to slowly improve what is there, building upon it.
Many are quite good at this. Some get very good. And it is necessary—an organization must always strive to be better, more effective, more efficient.
But sometimes fundamental changes need to happen. Of the one hundred most highly-capitalized American companies at the turn of the 20th century, only three were left a hundred years later. And they looked quite different. It should trouble us that our schools today look little different than those from the 1950’s.
There are periods when incremental improvements are not sufficient, and old technologies give way to new: train to plane, typewriter to computer, internal combustion engines to electric and hybrid. Sometimes the change is in how an organization is arranged, like the differences between the department store and discount retailing.
The challenge to policy makers is to let the mainline operation continue improving traditional schools, while setting up a separate space where entrepreneurship and innovation may occur.
The movement is building.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington has been analyzing the rapid growth of ‘portfolio’ districts across the country—those employing multiple platforms for the creation of new schools. Whether through chartering, pilot, contracted or magnet, the focus in these districts is on getting new, good schools.
Meanwhile the winds have been changing in Washington, DC. Increasingly those in the policy world are coming to understand that we cannot get the performance we need as a nation with the schools we presently have. And, importantly, they are seeing the practical necessity that follows: ‘school’ as we know it must change. President Obama and Secretary Duncan are now actively supporting this notion. More and more now, as the discouragement grows about ‘turning around’ existing schools, cities are moving to create different and better schools new.