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Thompson: Innovation and its Discontents

Trojan_horse The first 13 contributors to the National Journal’s discussion on innovation largely echoed the heroic infatuation of theorists with "disruptive innovation," arguing that education needs "radically new approaches," "federal leverage" to destroy local policies and "antiquated" contracts, and the adoption of Frederick Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom as the innovators’ Bible.

Diane Ravich provided a reality check, however, "educators do not need to reinvent the wheel. They need schools that are stable ... (educators) do not need is a plethora of programs showered upon them by non-educators who know everything ..." Agreeing with Ravich’s reminder that "it is not the role of the federal government to dictate ‘solutions’ that are not based on research or court orders," Bruce Hunter noted "many innovators have a political and ideological agenda, rather than an educational agenda."

The discussion’s turnaround was prompted by Alexander Russo, who asked whether innovation is "over-rated and ... (whether) implementation of simple ideas is the real thing we need more of? Health care organizations have learned the immense power of extremely simple tools like mosquito nets, home visits, water filters, cell phones, and small loans. ... I worry that we'll end up with too many wild-eyed innovations and another distracted decade."

Then, common sense and tough-minded researchers took over the conversation. Jim Shelton echoed Russo citing Atul Gawande who has written about "the power of a simple checklist in medicine: when doctors used basic five-step checklists in prepping before placing large IV lines into patients, they were able to cut infections by two-thirds and, over the course of 18 months in ICUs across Michigan, save more than 1,500 lives and $200 million. The steps on the checklist were not revolutionary, not even new. Among others, they were things so simple ... (as) washing their hands and putting on a sterile gown and gloves. All the materials necessary to catalyze the change, minus the checklist, already existed in every hospital. This innovation was the essence of simplicity ..."

Sherman Dorn applied Russo’s logic to one of education’s most maddening problems describing a school’s several years of "boiling down" interventions "to a simple behavioral contract approach that a coordinator at any school could manage," producing a "significant reduction in behavior troubles and referrals to special education." John Easton recommended "asking practitioners to let their experience shape our research agenda, and as part of that engagement, to help test and improve promising innovations. If we want schools to be stable, coherent organizations...."

And Steve Peha contributed brilliant and hilarious syntheses of T.S. Kuhn, a scorecard of "innovation versus schools," and detailed recommendations for bringing innovations to scale. 

It is fitting that Russo, curmudgeonly, got in the last word "with no expectation of convincing anyone in the near term, I will still sound the warning against fetishizing unproven, small-scale, marginal-benefit ideas. Innovation is not magic. Calling a program "innovative" does not make it any more effective, affordable, or scaleable." - John Thompson



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wow. it's really special, alex, that you have someone posting on your own blog who pats you on the back every once in a while and "reports" about you like you're on an equal footing with a former secretary of education. sweet setup. good job.

Policy makers gravitate toward innovation, because they feel compelled to, you know, make policy. Faith in policy levers--things like standards, compensation schemes, common assessments, value-added methodology-- to make transformative progress seems to spring eternal in the policy-makers' hearts, whether there's any proof they work, or not.

There are only so many policy mechanisms: incentives, mandates, system-shifting, capacity-building and persuasion. A policy-maker generally looks at what can be done--and done quickly--because the window of time for change and influence is small. That's why they jump to the first 3 mechanisms--if they don't get something done NOW, someone else gets a turn. If we commission a group to write standards, then we'll have standards, all right (whether they change practice or not)--and can forever point to the standards as a policy achievement.

The slow mechanisms (capacity-building and persuasion) don't yield quick results--but have great potential to actually change hearts and minds, once they become conventional wisdom. Think of the persuasion campaign around smoking--far fewer people smoke, and everyone knows how harmful smoking is. It took some time, but behavior changed on a national scale. Now think about what happens when smoking is punished (for example, in schools). The behavior goes underground.

The simple protocols described in your article happen in good schools everywhere--the professional staff sits down and decides how they're going to handle an issue. If the school collects before/after data, it's site-based research, the most valuable kind.

Diane has become one of the most pointed commentators on things educational. I remember that at a conference organized I think by Checker Finn's Fordham Institute she summarized a discussion on NCLB by offering that apparently it had failed to meet any of its intended targets, and the assembled group was silent.

She has also gotten off perhaps the most devastating one-liner about education since Obama took office, describing Arne Duncan as Margaret Spellings in drag.

Time and again we hear the latest and greatest "reforms' that have been designed and imposed without ever including the voices of teachers. There are many of us who are quite articulate on what needs to be done to make our schools successful FOR OUR STUDENTS which should be the standard. I wonder if anyone will ever get around to listening to our voices>

Tom Friedman of the NYTimes has called for "domestic nation building." That makes a lot of sense. It's what many thought we heard with "Change we can believe in" and "Yes we can!"

The Secretary of Education is promising education reforms of "moonshot proportion" in two years of stimulus funding that cannot be invested in anything requiring sustained financing. Oh, and by the way, while we're reforming, the main aim is to "save jobs."

That's as far removed from "domestic education building" as the man in the moon.


Alexander and I have agreed on maybe two things recently, but as I indicated recently, we rarely agree on many or most policy issues. I also am curious about Alexander's conclusions on Locke H.S., and I can't wait to hear his reactions regarding that real-world turnaround. Alexander is a proven innovator in the blogosphere, so I'm doubly curious about his thoughts regarding the actual process of change in inner city schools.

And that's a nice transistion to the other commenters. We need conversations between all types of people in education, but with a grounding in actual schools and with flesh and blood students and educators.

Nancy has more experience than I with the teachers' reality where one fad after another is imposed on schools. Just think of her list of revolutions that have been undertaken in the short careers of this generation of "reformers."

There are a lot of reasons why Dianne Ravich's wisdom has become so valuable, but one is her sense of history. So many of these innovations are just reinventions of previous "silver bullets" with bigger price tags.

I also loved Dick's comment on Alexander's latest,"The Innovationites, the Reformites, the NeoLibs, and the NeoCons are joined at the hip in a Race to the Top with four pillars that the National Academy of Sciences warns are without scientific/technical foundation. ..."

I like Nancy's comment about thinking long term. Here is my idea that I stole from Arne Duncan at the NAEYC conference. "We need an army of a million teachers to lead our nation's schools." not policy makers.

In Canada we have a phrase you may be familiar with that applies to almost every "innovation" that will provide the system with the breakthrough we need. "Throw the kitten a new ball of wool." The attention span of the education system to even the rare good "innovation" is less than the kitten. When you remove innovations that have either an ideological motivation (Gates, Broad, Waltons, Green Dot,) or contain a sales pitch (I wonder who benefits from a data driven system Mr Gates), you are not left with very much.

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