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Why Public Education Needs an Innovation Mindset

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This post is by Jennifer Poon, Director of the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Share your thoughts with Jennifer on Twitter at @JDPoon or #CCSSOILN.

 "Speed will triumph." In forecasting the future of business over the next 20 years, Fast Company editor Robert Safian harkened back to 1995 to describe how Netscape--the original "fast company"--indelibly rewrote the rules by which software companies do business. By quickly releasing beta versions of its software, seeking feedback from customers, and rapidly revising its products, Netscape birthed the modern era where we now expect unending iteration, updates, and "performance enhancements" to our hardware and software. And fast. If products are not responding to our needs quickly enough, myriad others wait around the corner ready to indulge our demands.

Fast is not a word often attributed to changes that occur in the education system. Despite the boom of education technology companies, the everyday American school house operates with remarkably persistent 19th century mechanics. Even as new school models pop up around the country thanks to competitive grant programs like Race to the Top, Next Generation Learning Challenges, and the recently-announced Project XQ, it is safe to assume that most of us still live near a school that hasn't changed much since we (and sometimes our parents and grandparents) attended it. Novel ideas spread through the system at glacial pace.

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Why do we not grow impatient? Likely, it is because we understand that meaningful change takes time. As the African proverb says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Meaning: you can't have it both ways. Making lasting change requires coalition-building, and generating public will takes time. Enduring policy changes are enacted during that rare perfect storm when political entities, government branches, parents, teachers, and voters can all agree on a way forward. And in fact, we may be in the midst of such a moment now, with the 14-year-old No Child Left Behind federal law about to receive a long-awaited overhaul. Its anticipated rebirth as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) would be a triumph of slow and steady bipartisan together-ness.

In education, we wait for our moments. Meanwhile, in our everyday lives, Apple updates our iPhones, Microsoft Office deploys a new interface (again!), and our children's friends invent a new form of communication that relies on smiley faces and emoji's that look like poop.

Poop emoji's are not greatly important. Education is. There should be greater urgency around the need for innovation within the heart of the education system, not just along its margins. We cannot afford to wait for the next perfect storm every 14 years, or even every few. Too much is at stake. A recent report by the Alliance for Excellent Education shows, as many as 1 million American students drop out of school in any given year. And even while dropout rates are trending downward, countless more students graduate the system without possessing the deeper knowledge, skills, or dispositions they need to succeed in college, career, or as contributors to American society. For these students and their futures, change must be both swift and pervasive.

Can we have it both ways? Can education systems foster innovation in a way that is lasting and that occurs more rapidly than what we have seen? To address this question, the Council of Chief State School Officers convened state and local education leaders from 12 states in October for its Innovation Lab Network Annual Convening in Milwaukee. There, these leaders, along with invited speakers Sandy Speicher, Associate Partner and Director of Education at IDEO, and Jim Shelton, Chief Impact Officer at ed tech company 2U, Inc., discussed how to foster more rapid and impactful innovation. Stealing pages from other sectors, participants considered how state and local education entities need to shift from a compliance-driven orientation to an innovation mindset: one wherein system leaders acknowledge that they might not have the best answers, and instead invest in incubating and extracting the best ideas from creative practitioners on the ground.

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Speicher and Shelton lead a discussion with chief state school officers and local leaders at CCSSO's 2015 Innovation Lab Network Annual Convening.

Extrapolated from this discussion, what follows are five recommendations for how education system leaders can cultivate an innovation mindset within their agencies and throughout their states.

1.      Give innovation purpose.

Innovation is much more than simply trying new things as fast as you can. Shelton defined innovation as "responsible and intentional experimentation." The idea of intentionality is one worth dwelling on. For innovation to be fruitful, system leaders must signal both the importance of innovation and its purpose - that is, to what end are we innovating. Rather than letting a thousand wildflowers bloom, system leaders should act as garden landscapers, establishing the parameters within which innovation occurs and a vision for the garden that will result.

To be clear, providing purpose and direction for innovation is not the same as specifying the exact output. For example, a purpose for innovation might be "to create greater equity within and across districts." Note that such a purpose is directional--towards equity--and provides guidelines within which state leaders can shepherd innovative efforts to be "more like this" and "less like that" along the way. But more importantly, the specifics of how schools will do this, and what that might look like when they achieve it, remain open to innovative interpretation. And the more open, the greater the likelihood that something unexpectedly marvelous will surface.

Resisting the temptation to define the output is often a great shift for policymakers, many of whom are accustomed to a more prescriptive relationship with their districts and schools. When policies prescribe a specific model or approach for districts or schools to implement, the process may seem safer because the end point is more known, but such stipulation squelches the creative potential on the ground to affect changes that may actually work better than what was prescribed. That is not to say there should be no parameters; there will be important "guardrails" that system leaders establish to protect against harm, like insisting on high expectations for all students and subgroups. System leaders may also set parameters that signal a desired direction for innovative solutions, such as "promotes social-emotional development of students" or "allows students to demonstrate mastery of concepts in deeper and more authentic ways." But these should be parameters, not prescriptive models that are imposed as the desired output.

All that said, Shelton reminds us that outcomes matter. In addition to providing a purpose and direction for innovation, system leaders should communicate what outcomes are sought. Leaders should be honest about what is working to produce those outcomes, and for any aspects of the system that aren't working, should consider how to repurpose time and energy to something more fruitful. 

2.      Provide transparency.

Shelton went on to introduce the concept of "irresponsible innovation": that which is done without documentation and remains localized in one classroom, school, or community. To be responsible, he argued, innovation should be data-driven and documented so that promising ideas can be shared and tested elsewhere, to the ultimate benefit of many. Moreover, the process should be transparent so that all stakeholders--especially parents, students, and teachers--understand what is being tried, toward what end, and how well it is working. The community should understand what is meant to be achieved through innovation, and should be part of the body that communicates their successes with others.

3.      Model an innovation mindset internally.

It is not enough for system leaders to talk about innovation with external stakeholders. They must also model an innovation mindset within their own agencies.

To do this, Speicher suggested system leaders take a second look at their agency's org chart. As Shelton noted, people with good ideas are often buried in an organizational structure. Adding that it is a lot to expect people to both maintain the current system and innovate, Speicher suggested that state or district agencies may consider creating an innovation team that is separate from day-to-day teams, as companies in other sectors often do. If a group of individuals is formally tasked with innovating, they can be rewarded for taking creative risks that others might feel disinclined to take. Each group is free to focus on what they do best, but both groups should be openly valued.

Regardless of whether creative problem-solving is delegated to a separate team or integrated into the job descriptions of all employees, Speicher and Shelton both suggested finding ways to recognize or reward staff for trying something new--even if the idea doesn't work.

4.      Design the cultural change.

Of course, successfully promoting an innovation mindset entails more than drawing a few new lines on the org chart. It requires a change in culture. If that sounds daunting, though, Speicher asserted that it's a simple matter of intent: "You can design culture. It doesn't happen through policy or structure alone. It is a result of everything you design." She advised state leaders to start by considering what kinds of behaviors they want to encourage. Do they want staff to be more data-driven? Have a disposition of openness and empathy? Engage in cross-agency problem-solving and collaboration? Whatever the desired behaviors, agency leaders can engage their staff in designing organizational processes to support these behaviors.

Speicher and several chief state school officers from the Innovation Lab Network states brainstormed an initial list of aspects of their education agencies that could be redesigned to better support innovation-minded behaviors, including:

  • Expectations, values, and mission
  • Standard operating procedures
  • Personnel roles and responsibilities
  • Hiring, onboarding, and exit processes
  • Training, coaching, and professional development
  • Incentives, rewards, and consequences
  • Evaluation processes
  • Design of physical space and décor
  • Rituals and traditions
  • Budget

Any of these elements or processes could become a starting point for system leaders to engage their staff in designing cultural change. By communicating desired behaviors and allowing their staff the space to propose and even prototype solutions, system leaders model the cultural change they are trying to create.

5.      Give space to the folks on the ground.

To achieve full-scale systems change, an innovation mindset must be shared across all levels of the system--state, district, and school. There are many ways in which system leaders can foster innovation on the ground, many of which are already at work within Innovation Lab Network states. From setting the agenda but providing leeway; to intentionally build trust and credibility; to providing cover through a network; to formally designating innovation zones, system leaders are already traversing the difficult transition from a compliance-based mode to an innovation mindset. Four such state approaches have been profiled in a recent multi-media CCSSO project, Next State of Learning, which will be publicly released in the coming days. Stay tuned for a press release and forthcoming post in the Learning Deeply blog this week with more information!

All of these approaches share one common blueprint: system leaders allow lone innovators to go fast as they prototype solutions to their everyday needs. But they envelop them in a supportive ecosystem of shared learning so that, with peers and policymakers alike, they can go far, together.

Image and photo by Jennifer Poon.

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