00315 Innovation: Fraught With Peril and Opportunity

Successful innovation has a sequence of phases:

1. Invention, early adoption, rapid acceptance by one market;

2. Expansion into multiple markets;

3. Legacy system transformation driven by outside disruptive innovations based on technology, societal and economic changes;

4. Dying or being absorbed into an emerging innovation.

Innovation is a highly unpredictable process. It is rife with unintended consequences and

1. Our system of education was invented by the Prussians in the early 1700’s to educate sons of the elite. It reached the U.S. market by the late 1880’s with the compulsory education movement.

2. The market served expanded from boys to boys and girls during the first half of the 1900’s and to minority populations and special education students in the last half of the 1900’s. The dominant mode of innovation has been market extensions through government mandates and significant increases in government funding. The result has been huge increases in student learning time, graduation rates and economic and societal benefits.

3. During the 1970’s and early 1980’s the legacy system invented by the Prussians had expanded to all available markets. But societal needs demanded a change to include quality with quantity. The emerging social need was for K-12 to educate college and career ready students for the 21st century. The demand curve had crossed over the supply curve and the scramble was on. Change was in the air.

Hope for rapid success has faded and we seem stuck in phase 3. Inside the system, grade inflation worked for awhile, but was then discredited. Outside advocacy communities came on strong with whole language, charter schools, school choice, essential skills, standards, school improvements, test score data to guide decision making and a host of others. Many are based on market-competitiveness models.

A recent book by an intellectual leader in this movement, Diane Ravitch is: “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” Dr. Ravitch wants to return to the traditional school structure. Why she is doing an about face on her 20 years of change efforts is explored in an Education Week  article, March 10, 2010 www.edweek.org .

Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas Fordham Institute, a long time associate of Diane Ravitch, agrees with her depressing analysis of the data. But he espouses renewed efforts to destroy the old structure and replace it with the new.

With humility to their much greater depth of wisdom and knowledge, I believe both are wrong. Reverting to innovation Phase 2 or jumping over Phase 3 to Phase 4 makes little sense.

We have 20 years of data which show that a dozen piecemeal approaches do not work. Even added together, there has been scant increase in academic performance of K-12 education as a whole. There is a big difference between statistically significant improvement and significant improvement in effect factor.

We must reach the effect factor goal of at least one sigma (or letter grade) improvement across the board for all 60 million students for all courses and grade levels. We must increase the graduation rate to an effective 95% whether through formal or informal means of education. Graduating students must be prepared and eager to prosper in a world that requires life-span learning.

The 300 year old innovation of grouping teachers and students within the traditional organizational structure needs to make the transformation with a long strategic system design approach. Outside advocates have a huge role to play to support the transformative changes in school finance, human resources, technology based systems, curriculum, data and decision making. But the real innovation adopters within Phase 3 are our leaders and teachers currently within the education system. Together we can pull it off.

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