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Study Uncovers the Downside of Innovation

Innovation is a big buzz word in national education circles these days. But a new study suggests that innovation for the sake of innovating may not always be the wisest strategy for improving schools.

A team of researchers launched by Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education has been analyzing four years of student-testing data for 44 charter and traditional public schools in Idaho, Indiana, and Minnesota. The sample they studied included a total of 1,727 students from both types of schools who were matched up by achievement, and demographic characteristics.

Here's what they found: First, students made similar math gains over the course of the study in both types of schools. Second, and more interestingly, the gains were smaller in schools where teachers reported there was more instructional innovation going on.

That finding held across the board, regardless of whether the school was a charter or not. But previous studies by some members of this same group have shown that charters do tend to be more innovative than their regular public school counterparts. After all, having the freedom to innovate is the point of charters.

"The finding that increased innovation was negatively associated with achievement gains suggests that innovation for innovation's sake may not be the best strategy for improving student achievement in any school," the researchers write. By the same token, they add, the results may also support "critics' claims that institutional regulations and constraints in schools are so strong that it is very difficult for truly innovative reforms to take hold in a way that could impact student achievement."

Here's another thought: Maybe schools that are already struggling the most are those where educators are frantically innovating.

The study is by Mark Berends, who has since moved to Notre Dame, Ellen Goldring, Marc Stein, and Xiu Cravens. It was published last month in the American Journal of Education but you can also read a brief on the results on the web site for Vanderbilt's National Center on School Choice.

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