Overcoming the Barriers to Innovation

When I first got involved in education, I approached it with the beliefs that a lot of people have outside the system: That it is extremely resistant, and slow, to change. One researcher referred to it as an “earthquake proof building,” implying that any change, any disruption, would soon shake out of the system so things could go back to normal.

I learned a long time ago that that’s not actually true at all: The K-12 education system has undergone, and continues to undergo, tremendous change. Consider curriculum standards: Standards govern almost every step we take, yet you might be surprised to hear that the idea of curriculum standards was first broached in 1991 – less than 30 years ago. (President George HW Bush proposed the idea of voluntary, national standards as part of his America 2000 plan, which President Bill Clinton advanced towards mandatory state standards in 1994.)

The reality is that change happens constantly in education, but it doesn’t come easy, nor should it. Disruptive, sudden change can leave students and educators on unstable ground, meaning there has to be a balanced, juried approach to implementing change, particularly big change.

The American Enterprise Institute tackles this issue in a new brief, titled Overcoming the challenges facing innovative learning models in K–12 education: Lessons from Teach to One. The piece focuses on instructional, not institutional change, but many of the same observations and conclusions apply.

Consider that we have a dominant model of K-12 education, and that all of the support systems, from personnel to funding to evaluation, are built on supporting and measuring that model. Someone brings in a new model of teaching, one that diverges quite a bit from the current model, but that offers great promise, and needs some flexibility to prove it out in a real-world environment.

There are a lot of decisions that go into making that happen: Who are our “guinea pigs” going to be, and what happens if the innovation fails? Can we evaluate it using the same methods already in place? Are our educators prepared to teach in this new way, and if not, how do we make that possible? Who’s going to pay for it? And who’s willing to risk their reputation and status to give this a chance?

While the paper is strong on analyzing the current situation, it offers less on suggesting solutions. If we’re going to make dramatic leaps forward in education, it’s those solutions we need most of all.

From my experience, the times that I’ve seen innovation happen, it’s been the individual champion – someone who believes strongly in a change, and simply makes it happen through force of will, refusing to take “no” for an answer. The champions I’ve seen have built coalitions, and made funding and procedural waivers appear, seemingly out of thin air.

It’s not fair to expect those champions to bear all the weight of change. We need a system that encourages them, giving them a platform to innovate in ways that can improve education for every stakeholder in the mix.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). 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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