Wednesday, November 20, 2019

An Innovation Network: A More Diverse and Inclusive Way to Innovate

This spring the Center on Reinventing Public Education launched the Big Think Network—a collaboration among six organizations that are working to build more just and responsive learning systems in their communities. In the process, we hope to build a new, more inclusive model of what research and development can look like in public education.

Historically, attempts to drive innovation in public education started with a break-the-mold initiative. Policymakers or foundations would discover a promising strategy. They would invest heavily in testing it: employing as close to gold standard research methods as possible to determine whether it worked under ideal conditions. They would then promote innovations that showed a statistically significant impact, and further invest in designing implementation guides, professional development, and measurement systems to monitor implementation and progress. 

This approach would take years—even decades—and cost millions of dollars. It also suffers a fatal flaw. Rather than including classroom teachers, students, families, and communities in the process of identifying problems, developing solutions, and testing them, it sought to impose ideas that were already fully formed, and only then recruit support from educators. 

As a result, David Tyack and Larry Cuban famously wrote, “Reforms have often resembled shooting stars that spurted across the pedagogical heavens, leaving a meteoric trail in the media but burning up and disappearing in the everyday atmosphere of the schools.”

Take the Comprehensive School Reform movement as an example. With funding from the federal government, schools across the country adopted “research-based” programs—“proven” models with implementation guides that, in theory, would enable “whole-school transformation.” 

The intended transformations rarely lasted. Sometimes, the models relied on core assumptions about available resources, stability of faculty, or students’ backgrounds that were not applicable to the schools that tried to implement them. At other times, the models clashed with existing school accountability, evaluation, or funding policies. In the end, the models faded from use or became so watered down that they were unrecognizable.

Reforms have often resembled shooting stars that spurted across the pedagogical heavens, leaving a meteoric trail in the media but burning up and disappearing in the everyday atmosphere of the schools.

David Tyack and Larry Cuban

Our network’s approach does not view diverse students or educators as sources of friction. Instead, it seeks to expand the number of innovators by giving educators and educational organizations—and the communities they serve—a process for systematic learning and discovery.

Anchored in the foundations of networked learning advanced over the last 15 years by Tony Bryk and colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, participants in our network are solving a specific problem that their community of learners contends with. They will work to tackle their chosen problems through cycles of testing solutions, assessing results, and making intentional adjustments (e.g. Plan, Do, Study, Act Cycles). 

Our network participants are already showing the potential benefits of this shift toward local problem solving.

For example, the Rural Alliance hopes to expand early childhood programs in underserved and underresourced rural and remote communities in Washington state. Rather than lobbying the state to fund a set of preschool programs that look and operate like those that exist in Seattle or Spokane, the Rural Alliance is partnering with local communities to define the problem as it exists for them, and to then craft an early childhood strategy based on local interest and local need. Ultimately, they will collaborate with local teams to design and pilot initiatives that meet each community’s specific needs.

Similarly, LEANLAB Education hopes to transform learning in Kansas City, Missouri, by including educators, parents, and students in the development of new education innovations and technologies. Instead of funding a bunch of edtech entrepreneurs to work in schools, their process starts with educators. LEANLAB Education recruits educators who have identified an instructional need in their classroom or school, then assembles large groups of educational entrepreneurs who propose strategies to address the educators’ needs. The educators choose entrepreneurs to partner with and pilot strategies. LEANLAB Education is developing an evaluation approach for these pilots that actively incorporates outcomes that local parents, students, and educators identify as important. In this way, LEANLAB Education assures that the problems being solved, the strategies pursued, and the evaluation of the innovations’ success are rooted in the priorities voiced by Kansas City educators, parents, and students.

We hope that democratizing the discovery process helps educators and their communities drive innovation (rather than have it imposed upon them) and generates innovations that better reflect the needs, desires, and resources of the communities in which they will take root.

Tue, 12/03/2019

Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.

Wed, 11/20/2019

Our network participants are already showing the potential benefits of the shift toward local problem solving.

Mon, 11/18/2019

Settling for cherry-picked or incomplete evidence isn't necessary.