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Innovation in Education: Signs of Hope and Worrisome Constraints

Note: Our guest-blogger this week is Anna J. Egalite, an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at North Carolina State University.

In my last blog post, I talked about how innovation in any industry thrives in messy, decentralized environments that encourage creativity and experimentation. Today I'd like to explore what innovation in education looks like. I've identified signs of hope as well as worrisome structural or policy constraints that inhibit complete transformation.

First, I'd like to share some signs of hope.

Forums that attract people of diverse backgrounds, talents, and expertise can help promote innovation by forcing otherwise siloed players from government, school districts, businesses, religious organizations, and community groups and agencies to interact with one another, which is essential if we are to avoid groupthink or suspicion of outsiders who could actually serve as partners.

Another sign of hope is evident in higher education hiring practices. An increasing number of institutions are engaging in "cluster hiring," the practice of recruiting cross-disciplinary faculty across a common theme to promote ideological diversity and crosscutting scholarship. Education schools, in particular, have much to benefit from this practice. Just imagine the advantages of infusing more education research and teaching with the new ideas these cluster-hires bring from their respective Ph.D. programs in say, computer science, design, economics, cognitive science, or entrepreneurship.

A third sign of hope is the diversity of school-community partnerships that have evolved organically. In Houston, the non-profit, Young Audiences of Houston, connects approximately 130 performing and visual artists with local kids through K-12 outreach and residencies to advance creative development. Similarly, in Milwaukee, the Conservatory Connections Program takes the faculty of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music into the community so that professional musicians can provide all or part of a school's music curriculum. As program director, Meaghan Heinrich says, "It makes life a little bit more beautiful, a little bit more exciting, and a little bit more meaningful."

I'm certain there are many other great resources and groups that could be partnering with schools, but the public school sector isn't incentivized to build these collaborations and current funding models aren't primed for any kind of significant expansion of such partnerships. This brings me to the constraints that currently inhibit widespread innovation in education.

First, the absence of even modest market pressure in most regions means schools have little reason to scrimp and save, and thus little motivation to identify the dramatic innovations that accompany serious cost saving efforts. Take, for instance, the issue of differentiated pay. This type of reform can involve paying teachers more to teach in a hard-to-staff school or subject, or paying highly effective teachers a bonus in reward for student success on a standardized test or other measure of progress. Many principals are resistant to implementing such reforms in their schools, however. In North Carolina, lawmakers are currently considering a bill to hide teacher salaries from the public record to prevent "envy and jealousy" among teachers and thus make it easier for principals to establish differentiated pay programs. If the bill passes, it will be interesting to watch if principals in more competitive schooling environments are more likely to take advantage of this policy change to experiment with new approaches to compensation and if those in less competitive environments shy away from the disruption it might cause.

Second, public school districts can serve as gatekeepers. Although numerous community groups might be open to collaborating with a school district to provide summer camps, send kids home with meals for the weekend, purchase school supplies, or organize homework clubs, it's often one or two individuals in a school district who make the approval decisions about which proposals are brought before the school board for consideration. If that person is resistant to partnering with faith-based groups, non-traditional actors or entrepreneurs, or has other unique screening criteria, potential partners risk being rejected at first glance.

The third constraint is size. Big school districts often serve large, diverse communities so they must avoid uncertainty and ambiguity by creating regulations that formalize protocols and procedures. Such regulations are implemented with the best of intentions but restrict autonomy to ensure uniformity. The problem, of course, is that autonomous experimentation is a prerequisite for innovation.

The fourth and most significant constraint is how we currently fund education. The most common funding formulas have no provision by which funds could be broken up and distributed among multiple providers in a piecemeal fashion. This means there's no provision by which we could allocate a portion of the funding that's earmarked for an individual child's education for community providers who could offer valuable supplementary services.

So, why does education seem immune, or at least resistant, to dramatic innovation? Modest improvements in today's public school system are the result of too little competitive pressure, gatekeeping behaviors that restrict community partnerships, a dense thicket of well-intended regulations with unintended consequences, and approaches to funding that restrict the distribution of funds among multiple providers.

In my next post, I look forward to sharing some thoughts on how education policy can promote more innovation in education.

--Anna EgaliteĀ 

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