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Not All Innovations Are Created Equal

We throw around the phrase "innovation" a lot in education. When talking about new sector providers, new school models, or education technology, there's a tendency to use "innovation" as a lazy, all-purpose label. Of late, I feel like I've been pitched a wave of "innovations" by would-be reformers thrilled by their visions of new school models, community programs, professional development strategies, or ed tech applications. This has all served to remind me of something I noted a couple years ago in Education Unbound: not all innovations are created equal. Rather, their value depends on the degree to which they promote new efficiencies, address unmet needs, or perform consistently at high levels.

It is not enough for an entrepreneurial venture to simply be good. To really be worthwhile, in addition to meeting one of the three criteria above, there's an imperative that it be able to replicate and to grow. This is where the ambition enters in. Even though it's immensely challenging to successfully launch even a single school or provide a boutique service, the real standard is far more demanding. It's not merely whether an innovation might plausibly be scaled, but whether it can be used it to deliver transformative benefits to a broad swath of children, families, or educators.

Third, significant innovations need also to be cost-effective. Entrepreneurs who succeed by adopting a "more, better" strategy can make a useful contribution, but their impact is inevitably limited. Schools that rely on scarce talent, big philanthropy, or extraordinary support from other sources are guaranteed to start hitting a ceiling when those resources grow scarce. The most compelling entrepreneurial ventures are those that find ways to deliver average or above average results for less money and with less manpower.

In short, all innovations and entrepreneurial ventures are not created equal. The most significant will be those that are cost-effective and can be replicated at scale. These solutions have the power to transform schooling. In practice, would-be reformers and philanthropists too often skip past this truth.

They get distracted by nifty schools or programs and disproportionately favor boutique ventures, even when these will likely be difficult to scale. Indeed, the very traits that fuel early success and make new boutique models attractive and initially promising--a reliance on a "more, better" approach, philanthropic support, and extraordinarily talented and passionate employees--often hinder prospects for growth.

In considering the potential scalability and impact of a given venture, there are at least three key factors to weigh. First, how fierce are the political and institutional barriers that confront this innovation? What are the formal and informal barriers that must be addressed? Ventures that face fewer legal or regulatory hurdles will find it easier to grow than those which face such barriers.

Second, are there metrics that can accurately gauge the effectiveness of new providers? Those innovations that fit most cleanly into the metrics at hand (e.g. grades three to eight reading and math scores) have enjoyed an enormous leg up in recent years. But if we want to encourage ventures focused on other students, subjects, or needs, additional metrics are essential. If those metrics can be devised and standardized, scalability becomes much more manageable.

Finally, how replicable is the core innovation? Computer simulations, web-based tutorials, or tightly scripted programs may be much easier to replicate than a school, service, or product that depends heavily on talent. Instructional or school models, on the other hand, have many more variables and are much more dependent on the quality of the instructors and classroom culture--which means consistent quality requires finding thousands of teachers as committed and skilled as the first handful.

All of this said, entrepreneur and author Steven Wilson has noted that it's essential to avoid drawing simplistic conclusions as to which ventures are most promising, significant, or readily replicated. For instance, he's argued that school builders like KIPP are pioneering radical advances in management practice and staffing, and that these advances are educationally more significant than many instances of current technology utilization. There are no pat formulas by which to gauge the promise of various ventures; such judgments will and should inevitably be imperfect and context-dependent.

So, the next time someone's touting a thrilling new "innovation," be sure to ask whether the venture provides something game-changing, replicable, and sustainable. If not (and the odds are that it doesn't), take a pass on the hoopla.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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