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Innovation Step by Step

Here's an astonishing statistic. Apparently, dairy cows today each produce six times as much milk as they did in 1950. Consumption of dairy products per person is about the same as it was then, so if milk per cow were the same as in 1950, we'd need six times as many cows per person; vastly greater acreage and other resources would be needed. The same pattern is true for almost any area of agriculture.

Yet do you recall any breakthroughs in agriculture in the past 60 years? I don't. Instead, the steady gains in agricultural productivity are due to hundreds or thousands of small advances. In the case of dairy cows, it's advances in breeding, feed, veterinary care, milking technology, and so on.

In education, we often act as though we're waiting for breakthroughs: New technologies, new assessments, radically new teaching methods, and so on. When breakthroughs do not materialize, we lose faith in research and development as a path to reform.

Yet in medicine, technology, agriculture, and other fields that base progress on evidence, progress is constant and cumulative. Breakthroughs may take place, but more often it's small, step-by-step improvements with evidence of effectiveness that move the field forward. When education finally embraces R&D as a basis for adoption of innovation, progress in each subject and grade level will probably also be steady rather than remarkable. Programs and practices found to make a modest but meaningful difference in student learning outcomes will accumulate over time, as took place in dairy farming and so many other fields that have seen substantial progress over the years.

As my colleague Jon Baron recently wrote in a New York Times article, "Scientifically rigorous studies - particularly, the "gold standard" of randomized controlled trials - are a mainstay of medicine, providing conclusive evidence of effectiveness for most major medical advances in recent history. In social spending, by contrast, such studies have only a toehold. Where they have been used, however, they have demonstrated the same ability to produce important, credible evidence about what works - and illuminated a path to major progress."

Precisely because genuine progress in educational programs and practice is likely to be gradual, it is especially critical that support for the R&D process be sustained and steady over time, since exciting headlines will be rare. If someone comes up with a "smart pill" or a new technology that doubles learning rates, all the better; the same R&D process that supports evolutionary change could also produce revolutionary change. But don't count on it.

Let's be clear. Reading scores in the U. S. have been virtually unchanged since 1980. Achievement gaps by social class and race have been about the same for 30 years. We should be outraged by this, but we need to turn that outrage into a commitment both to use the proven programs and practices available now and to engage in research and development that leads over time to truly transformative innovation.

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