Education Has an Innovation Problem

There’s a really interesting thought piece in the January 9 edition of Education Week, titled “Education Has an Innovation Problem.” It’s a bit of a deceptive title, since the author isn’t doing the conventional school-bashing about schools never changing (which is a huge misconception – insiders know the pace of change in education is astounding). Instead, he’s referring to the fact that we’re so focused on innovation – introducing new stuff – that we’re failing to focus on the maintenance and support of the innovations we’ve already introduced:

Just giving every student a Chromebook might get you headlines. But schools are slowly learning that ongoing training, technical support, and network upkeep is what’s necessary to actually make the devices effective tools for learning.

Furthermore, such maintenance work is also increasingly necessary to guard against calamity. Stories now abound about school districts getting hacked, phished, and held for cyber-ransom—sometimes by their own students. The marketplace is full of expensive, technology-driven cybersecurity solutions promising to help schools innovate their way out of the problem. But smart educators recognize that the foundation of preventing most attacks includes such basic steps as sound password management and regular patching of software.

Anyone who’s done fundraising – or solicited community partners – knows that unless you’re touting the big new thing, the new and exciting shiny object, it’s very hard to build excitement and engagement. It’s hard to get people to pay salaries and rent; those aren’t exciting, and there’s no glory in attaching your name to operations and maintenance. However the author is right. If you want an initiative to be effective and sustainable, that’s where a lot of the resources and effort needs to go. We have to move past the big new thing to the effective existing thing that lasts.

He used the networking of schools as an example – once something new, now something old that nevertheless needs continuous investment in order to preserve its value:

The work of keeping schools connected is never done. Regularly upgrading their internal WiFi connections will probably cost upwards of $5 billion every five years or so, he said, and it will take preserving the bipartisan support such efforts have now to make such maintenance feasible.

And sometimes, Marwell said, the most significant advances don’t look like what we’ve been conditioned to expect.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge in K-12 is not finding the next new innovation,” he said. “It’s about doing the fundamentals more effectively, including identifying the innovations that are already working and spreading them.”

I don’t know the solution to this – I’ve faced this well several times, and funders (and partners) want what they want. But I do know that if we’re going to do right by students, we have to do things the right way, even if it’s not the new way.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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