Game-changing innovation

Those of you who look at these posts with any regularity know that innovation is an interest of mine. I’m a fan of Clay Christensen’s observations about innovation being far more likely to succeed on the margins (where few are paying attention), but these days the margins in education are wide—because only math and English matter to the bean counters!

Innovation is education’s only hope. Even if more stimulus dollars become available, that will only put off the day of reckoning, unless educators wake up and act.

Happily, some are. Here are three examples.

I wrote recently about a charter school in Redwood City, California, that uses the last month of school (after the state tests) as a mini-semester in which kids take one elective class and, at month’s end, present their results to the entire school.

I just came from a Gates Foundation meeting in Seattle, where grantees shared ideas for shaking up and changing post secondary education, particularly the community colleges and their embarrassingly high failure rate. A community college in El Paso, Texas, goes into all the local high schools and gives juniors its placement exam. When the kids see the results, they’re likely to see the light—and work harder so they won’t have to spend their first year of ‘college’ taking remedial (high school) classes. The school districts are so keen on this that they are paying the costs of testing, the community college president told me. And they’re also developing curriculum that addresses the deficiencies revealed by the placement tests. In the end, this ‘experiment’ will reduce both failure and costs.

Out here in California, a state whose education system is as hard hit as anywhere in the US, some enterprising folks have figured out a way to reduce the costs of technology by embracing free, open-source software, specifically Linux. I’m indebted to Mike Cassidy of the San Jose Mercury News for pointing this out to me and the other readers of his column on June 11th. Cassidy points out that schools have thousands of computers that have reached the point of obsolescence—they could not support an upgrade of their Windows operating system even if their school system could afford it (which they cannot).

Unplugging them reduces the electricity bill but turns them into paperweights, Cassidy notes. But rather than throw those machines out and deprive students of access to the Internet and the world outside the school’s wall, why not install Linux? It’s free, easy to use and growing in popularity?

There are reasons not to act, of course, including inertia, fear, the costs of retraining people, and perhaps some existing contracts with providers.

Let’s deal with each of these: Contracts should not be a barrier for long, because no company doing business with the public would want to be seen as standing in the way of children’s education. Retraining also should not be a major issue as long as the adults are willing to swallow their pride and enlist teams of students (who are generally ahead of us in technology). Just create teams of kids and adults working together, because that way you’ll end up with checks and balances and safeguards. Installing the software and creating management systems, et cetera, would be real work, which is what most HS students I know would much prefer to the Mickey Mouse routine that is today’s HS experience.

Inertia can’t resist strong, effective leadership. Fear is part of the human condition, which means it has to be faced head on. Address it, harness it, and move beyond it.

So there are three interesting and potentially game-changing innovations: mini-semesters with electives; community colleges reaching down into high school for a reality check for students, and installing free, open-source operating systems in otherwise useless computers.

None of these innovations is motivated chiefly by a desire to save money, but all three end up producing savings.

We should be sharing this sort of news, early and often. If you know of more stories like these, please weigh in. I won’t be the only person thanking you.

7 thoughts on “Game-changing innovation

  1. Innovation is for sure Impotant with respect to improving pedagogy. But it’s also an important concept to include in the expectations of skills learned by students and used in their assignments. I will check the link about the margins but I believe Innovation is NOT an option for any expectation of success – in any effortt made.


  2. Hello John,

    You need to come to Minnesota. The Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Minnesota has been operating without courses or classes for the last 16 years. We’re fans of Clay Christensen too (we’re real life disruptive innovators) and have been proving there’s a better and more efficient way to do high school with complete technology access, high standards and community immersion. New Country was chosen as one of top 8 charter schools in the nation in 2006 and Gates has been funding the replication of New Country since 2000. 91% of alumni have gone on to college (that’s with a 40% special ed rate).

    We can show you things you have never seen before in your quest for innovation! And this is not tinkering. It’s the way school is for these kids everyday, all day for their entire high school career. One learning adventure after another.

    I’m the director of the non-profit replication group and we’ve now helped start over 50 of these schools. We’d love to visit with you sometime. Maybe early this fall so you can help the kids pick apples in the school orchard.


  3. The only “innovation” that will take place over the next two decades is a huge shift of resources from the classroom to teacher retirement benefits that were repeatedly retroactively enhanced and underfunded during the past two decades. The real question is what should be lost.

    Should class sizes be increased?

    Should the pay and benefits of future teachers be dramatically scaled back, with schools accepting less qualified and motivated teachers in exchange?

    How about eliminating high school, or at least senior year? Or pre-kindergarten, or kindergarten.

    Should the school year be cut to 160 days?

    And will special “gifted” and magnet schools be made available to those in the know, as the rest of the education system deteriorates?

    In NYC we know what is coming, because it is coming for the second time. Future money has already been taken off the top. There is no reason to talk about anything other than the consequences.


  4. John, this is a really interesting post. Our new book The Power of Social Innovation builds on a series of convenings and interviews with civic entrepreneurs from government, nonprofits, business and philanthropy. We identify solutions to dealing with the stumbling blocks between existing delivery systems like public education (but also housing, poverty alleviation, child welfare) and social innovators, like the momentum of the status quo and fear (e.g. fear of getting in the newspaper for the wrong reason) as you’ve mentioned above. The political risks for elected and other government officials, of both failure and opposition from incumbent interests for example, were often brought to our attention. We found the most effective innovators are successfully navigating the political waters by building a constituency for change among parents and interested citizens, making performance indicators open and transparent including gathering feedback from students/clients, and by helping to “underwrite” political risk by openly taking responsibility for the outcome of their social innovation.


  5. Some interesting posts. I will look for The Power of Social Innovation for my summer reading. We haven’t covered the costs of pensions, and perhaps we should do so in the near future. I think one factor in innovation is increased awareness of the costs of the status quo. My own book, Below C Level (available soon), argues that it’s high time to identify those who now benefit from the status quo, despite its mediocrity.


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