Ohio's Zones for Innovation in Education

Yesterday I was asked to complete a survey in anticipation of a conference sponsored by Grantmakers for Education.  The topic is “Designing for Innovation in American Education.”   The highly competent staff at GFE ask,

Despite the increasing attention being given to “innovation” in education, innovation remains a loosely defined concept. How can grantmakers envision a truly innovative future for American education-and use that understanding to ensure our education systems meet the needs of learners today? How can human-centered design drive education innovation, particularly as we strive to engage diverse learners? What new capacities must education philanthropists develop to effect trans-formative change? Join colleagues from across the country as we answer these key questions.

This request arrive the very same day that the following article appeared in the New York Times.  The subject addresses innovation and its demise in one of the world’s largest companies.

Microsoft’s Creative Destruction

Published: February 4, 2010

Microsoft’s huge profits — $6.7 billion for the past quarter — come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.

Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.

As a result, while the company has had a truly amazing past and an enviably prosperous present, unless it regains its creative spark, it’s an open question whether it has much of a future.

Innovation and its demise within a large business serves as a lesson to the public school system which, by its nature, thwarts an innovative spirit.  Disruptive technologies can be very threatening to school administrators who feel tremendous pressure from “The STATE” to have their schools perform well on the report cards.   In that sense, schools and school officials spend a lot of time talking about “school improvement” which presupposes that the thing they are trying to improve is inherently good.   Disruption, as in disruptive technologies discussed most notably by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, threatens the very core of what a dutiful school superintendent is trying to achieve which is a kind of  educational “equilibrium.”  How many teachers across the country work with Superintendents whose managerial style mimics those described by the former Microsoft employee.  How many principals, and superintendents have, “created a dysfunctional corporate (educational) culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence.”  To paraphrase Mr. Bass’ article, it is no wonder greatest and most talented younger people wind up leaving the teaching profession after only a few years.  No wonder why schools have a hard time recruiting new teachers.  What young person, raised and nurtured in a system that encourages creativity and thinking wants to work in such a system?

W. Brian Arthur’s book, The Nature of Technology discusses the question raised by my colleagues at the Grantmakers for Education.  This professor and visiting researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center says in his most recent book, “…we have no agreement on what the word ‘technology’ means, no overall theory of how technologies come into being, no deep understanding of what ‘innovation’ consists of … missing is a set of overall principles that would  give the subject a logical structure, the sort of structure that would help fill these gaps.”

Without a common understanding of what innovation can mean, it should be no surprise that school officials react negatively when the concept is introduced.  Unfortunately, these same officials and their teachers do not embrace the urgency that is needed to explore the ways in which technology can and is challenging the way students learn and achieve.  The lack of any state sanctioned Innovation Zones results in too many classrooms across the states tinkering with technology and learning.  This parody, done by students at University of Denver, show the less than optimal results.

My vision for Ohio would be to legislate the establishment of Educational Innovations Zones.  More specifically  the legislation would support the establishment of five Innovation Zones throughout the State.  This concept starts out being consistent with the Ohio School Improvement Program which, is aspirational at best, but which, in my opinion, flounders in implementation.

Ohio’s School Improvement Program

…Rather than focusing on making improvement through a “school-by-school” approach, Ohio’s
concept of scale up redefines how people operate by creating a set of expectations that, when
consistently applied statewide by all districts and regional providers, will lead to better results for
all children. OLAC’s recommendations are supported by recent meta-analytical studies on the
impact of district and school leadership on student achievement, and provide strong support for
the creation of district and school-level/building leadership team structures to clarify shared
leadership roles/responsibilities at the district and school level, and validate leadership team
structures needed to implement quality planning, implementation, and ongoing monitoring on a
system-wide basis.

The two concepts diverge however when I suggest that these “zones” include some of the best teachers from varying districts within the region.  An ideal zone would include teachers from public, charter and private schools as well as home-schools, who can demonstrate a creative approach to education.  The zones would be given a five-year time period to meet regularly and demonstrative clear and effective methods to improve teaching and learning.  More importantly, these zones would be encouraged to demonstrate effective assessment tools to measure success using these new approaches.  Also within these zones, school administrators and teachers would be charged with coming up with tools that will demonstrate clear cost-savings to the business of educating.  For example,  can a ‘zone’ be managed in new ways that would allow the State to reduce the number of high-paid superintendents and curricular officers.  These zones could and should be given levels of autonomy.  Rather than the current Office of Innovation    These offices could report to the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement which by its description is simply another management office to tinker with what is already in place.  It is certainly NOT a way to stimulate the real innovation that needs to take place on the peripheries.  The zones can be virtual places such as SecondLife where people across long physical distances can meet regularly.

These innovation zones would be managed by local boards, consisting of educators from K-12, educators from higher education, business leaders, education technologists and accountants who will help oversee the evolving budgetary implications of innovation.  These board would report out to a State and/or National official on a quarterly basis.  Real innovation would be posted similar to the way that the Lucas Foundation’s site Edutopia reports out on innovative uses of technology by individual teachers and schools across the country.

In an ideal world, these zones would be the targets of Federal Race to The Top funding.  It is not inconceivable that other states could legislate innovation zones and a national competition be underway to demonstrate real innovation in teaching and assessment for learning.  To appease the teachers unions which will likely fight this every step of the way, the legislation should be firm (urgency should prevail), but allow for the entire concept of innovation zones to be scraped if no significant cost-savings or significant gains in learning take place.  We can go back to the way things were.

It is important to realize that real innovation will be a process.  A process similar to medical research in which making mistakes is allowed.  Failures should be published and shared.  Medical researchers can learn as much from failure as they seek to create new and effective protocols for treating disease.  Similarly, risk taking can be encouraged with the understanding that all will learn from success as well as failure.

Referring again to Dr. Arthur’s book one can understand why these innovation zones need not be concentrated in one particular school building or “district” as we have come to know them bound by geographic lines drawn over a century and a half ago.  The zones need to be centers of knowledge as well as ways of thinking.  This thinking by its nature will conflict with the aspiration to equilibrium too many school administrators crave.

…when new bodies of technology – railroads, electrification, mass production, information technology – spread through an economy, old structures fall apart and new ones take their place.  Industries that were once TAKEN for GRANTED become obsolete, and new ones come into being.

Real advanced technology – on-the-edge sophisticated technology – issues not fro knowledge but from something I will call deep craft. Deep craft is more than knowledge.  It is a set of knowings.  Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work.  Knowing what methods to use, what principles are likely to succeed, what parameter values to use in a given technique.  Knowing whom to talk to down the corridor to get things working, how to fix things that go wrong, what to ignore, what theories to look to.  This sort of craft-knowing takes science for granted and mere knowledge for granted.  And it derives collectively from a shared culture of beliefs, an unspoken culture of experience.”

The urgency remains.   Too many good teachers who are indeed professionals are not meeting their potential due to a system that has lost its ability to mange.   Philanthropy can play a role by working with the State to fund these centers of innovation.  President Obama is working with the MacArthur Foundation to stimulate innovation in education with a $2 million competition.  Other foundations across the country could pick up the challenge but I believe that better coordination with the States who ultimately run education would be a better approach.  More on this later.