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Innovation Is Great, But Let’s Get Real

I have been following the debate on promoting productivity in schools between Hill and Roza, in one corner, and Baker and Welner, in the other.

I think one thing both corners can agree on is that productivity-enhancing innovations in schooling would be a good thing.  Although a bit more contentious, we might also get a large number of people to agree that the public education systems in many states could be more effective at promoting innovation.  The key question is how? 

I recently saw Marguerite Roza present her views on this question of promoting educational innovation.  The implications of her remarks were that, although it might not seem like it, the current fiscal situation of districts may be a good thing because it provides the impetus for much needed innovation.    She suggested that the main thing state officials can do to help districts deal with budget cuts is to relieve them of regulations that prevent creative responses to resource scarcity.   That, plus suggestions that the sought after creative innovations lie in computer aided instruction programs, was it.

My primary worry about this message is that it provides a simplistic and unrealistic view of what would be required to promote productive innovation.  Cutting budgets, providing relief from regulations, and hoping for the best is not a realistic prescription.  Any proposals for promoting systematic productivity improvements must recognize the following.

  • Innovations require investment. Any new technology, be it an administrative innovation like school-based cost accounting or a new instructional model, requires expertize and training to implement.  School districts suffering large cuts are ill-positioned to make those investments.
  • Changes in administrative processes or the delivery of instruction will not always improve productivity.  In fact, given the disruption in well-established routines, most are likely to undermine productivity, at least temporarily.  Some innovations may be extremely valuable, but others will be harmful.  We know very little about which are the helpful, which are ineffective, and which are actually harmful.   This fact has two implications.  First, evaluation of “innovations” that are tried is essential.  In the absence of meaningful, high quality evaluation there is no reason to believe the productivity enhancing changes are more likely to be propagated than ineffective or harmful innovations.
  • A second implication of the fact that there are good and bad “innovations” is that some students will be harmed by attempts to innovate.  The less that is invested in choosing, implementing, and evaluating innovations the greater the probability that potentially harmful innovations will be implemented and the greater the harm to students.  The possibility of harm raises the question of which districts and students should be used to test unproven “innovations”?  The implication of the view the fiscal stress is the impetus for innovation is that those districts facing the most stress will be the ones forced to test unproven innovations.  And in New York at least, low wealth, high need districts are overrepresented among those districts facing severe stress.  So it is students in low-wealth, high need districts, who are likely to bear much of the risk associated with the introduction of unproven innovations.  I’m not sure that’s how I would design a system for developing and testing innovations.

So, what are the implications for state policy makers?  I am not an expert on the implementation of innovative instructional or management practices.  With that caveat in mind, here are what seem to me to be elements of a realistic productivity policy.  First, the U.S. Department of Education and state education departments must take the lead in working with districts to identify promising innovations.  The U.S. Department of Education’s “Increasing Educational Productivity” project is a step in the right direction here, although one might be concerned with the quality of information generated by that project thus far.  Second, federal and state officials must establish a rational set of criteria for selecting where and how those innovations will be tested, and what provisions will be made to protect students from potential harms.  Third, the federal and state agencies must provide the expertise and training required to implement these innovations well.  Fourth, the state must ensure meaningful, high quality evaluations of innovations being tested.  One can imagine a grant program in which the state works with districts to develop proposals, funds those proposals, and provides evaluation.  Of course all of this requires resources.  Both significant staff resources to implement such a program and grant dollars that can be used to finance district implementation.  To think that real innovation can be achieved on the cheap is not realistic.

Finally, there is one other concern raised by the recent discussion of productivity.  Overly optimistic, make-believe notions about how much districts can improve productivity could dampen the urgency of protecting low-wealth, high need districts and their students from large funding cuts.  When ideology trumps reality the most vulnerable often end up getting hurt.

Robert Bifulco

Robert Bifulco is the Associate Dean, Chair, and Professor in the Public Administration and International Affairs department at the Maxwell School, as well as a S...