The down-low on innovation "uptake"

Taking
promising reforms and innovations “to scale” is a challenge that has bedeviled
public schools for decades. One prominent example was the multi-million dollar
New American Schools program, which, supported through federal and private
dollars, solicited proposals from around the country for novel or proven
whole-school design programs—such as Success for All—and engaged school
districts to adopt school-based professional-development programs designed to
help schools replicate the programs. Like so many other efforts to replicate
best practices, New American Schools failed due to uneven implementation. The
New American Schools experience, like decades of similarly ineffective efforts
to replicate successful education programs, should teach us that the “uptake
problem” in public education warrants serious attention in order to foster
innovation and improve productivity in U.S. education.

New
instructional innovations using technology hold great promise for dramatically
improving educational delivery systems and resource productivity. Schools, like
Rocketship Education and School of One, that blend distance learning and
computer-driven curriculum with on-site, teacher-based instruction demonstrate
that smart uses of technology can allow public schools to use teacher time more
productively, more effectively engage students, and save labor costs so that
money can be invested in teacher salaries, social supports for students, or
smaller class sizes. However, getting these and other innovations to take hold
more broadly across the United
States is far from a sure thing.

The
same issues have come up when we look at how few districts have tried to
replicate what works in high-performing charter schools. One Center for Reinventing
Public Education study
of charter-management organizations (CMO) has shown
that only a few districts are working seriously to import apparently successful
literacy programs, “no excuses” cultures, or even the support structures that make
Achievement First, KIPP, and Aspire Public Schools well-known.

Erin
Dillon and Bill Tucker at Education Sector were
smart to point out
that the rush to support technology-based school
expansion must avoid exaggeration of the benefits and embrace rigorous outcome
evaluation—a necessity for the charter sector as well. But history tells us that
there’s a bigger problem: There is little evidence that our public-school
system will open or transform schools to high-tech and high-performing models,
even if those programs demonstrate success under the most rigorous conditions.
And, even where programs are adopted, it still won’t be easy.

The
political barriers alone are daunting. Status quo defenders advance policies
that would limit or block innovations, such as online learning, by requiring
students to participate in a certain number of hours of classroom-based instruction each
day. State and federal restrictions on how money is spent can make it
difficult, if not impossible, for schools to experiment with innovative
approaches to spending.

There is little evidence that our public-school system will open or transform schools to high-tech and high-performing models...

 
   
 

More
mundane, but possibly more of a pervasive threat, are attitudes toward adopting
new innovations. Using technology for instruction challenges some of the most
fundamental beliefs about education and the role of teachers, prompting
significant reaction from teachers and parents alike. Without strong state
accountability systems, school districts and schools have limited incentive to
experiment in order to identify better instructional approaches. And even when
all of the policy stars align, school districts and state departments of
education tend to be risk averse, valuing compliance with known rules over
entrepreneurialism.

Still,
some school districts are actively working to embrace technology and other
innovations to support their learning goals. New York City’s iZone is perhaps the most ambitious
example
. The city hopes to transform or create 100 or more schools,
including new charter schools, over the next three years by building on
fundamentally new assumptions, such as scheduling staffing and class time
around student learning needs rather than a one-size-fits-all model. In the
iZone, technology is used to catalyze these innovative school attributes for
breakthrough learning outcomes.

It
remains to be seen, though, whether even innovation-friendly school districts
like New York
can effectively partner with entrepreneurs, become wise consumers and evaluators
of new innovations, train and gain the support of their teachers, and
effectively engage parents and students. State education agencies face their
own capacity issues.

New
flexibilities from federal and state laws are needed to ensure that state and
district leaders who want to innovate can do so. State policymakers who wish to
champion innovation will need to pursue strategies and policies such as:

• Gathering information about promising approaches,
evidence of effectiveness, cost, and implementation requirements;

• Re-doing state budgets to allow for startups,
demonstrations, and partnerships with private providers;

• Creating budgetary flexibility so that capital-labor
tradeoffs can be made at the school level;

• Designing incentive programs that encourage innovation
and build new capacities;

• Creating situations under which schools must either
adopt innovations or be replaced by other providers; and

• Considering policies to relax rules in exchange for
specific performance outcomes and strong accountability measures, similar to
the “operational freedom in return for results” that should govern charter
schools.

State leaders will also need to identify and eliminate
policy barriers to the quick spread of productivity-enhancing approaches. For
starters, states can remove laws and regulations that are based on inputs.
Prime candidates for elimination are student “seat time” requirements, pay
scales that reward seniority and teacher education levels rather than
performance, and funding formulae that prevent districts from combining funds
in innovative ways. States would also do well to do “innovation audits” to
assess which rules most prohibit innovation.

School districts and state agencies face serious cultural
and political barriers in overcoming a dismal track record on innovation. Until
this changes, we can expect that public education will continue to adopt only marginal
innovations that will result in negligible productivity gains for students. Greater
policy and funder attention is urgently needed if American public schools are
to hit desired outcomes for productivity, innovations, and renewal.

Robin Lake is the associate director of the Center on
Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). A version of this essay originally appeared in the
Policy Innovation in Education’s policy paper “Schools in High Gear: Reforms
That Work When They Work Together,” released this week in conjunction with the PIE-Network annual meeting.

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