Why So Little Innovation in Education?

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

At this point, it’s nearly obligatory for a conference speaker or panelist to say either:

(1) “Classrooms look the same exact same as they did one hundred years ago.”


(2) “We need to transform our outdated factory model of schooling.”

Rarely does the speaker then give a plausible explanation for why classrooms look the same now as they used to do a hundred years ago, or why we haven’t thrown off the awful shackles of the factory model of education.

If we’re going to increase education innovation, we should probably try and understand why there is so little of it.

So let’s dig in.

Some possible explanations for the lack of innovation could be:

1. Regulation is hampering innovation.

Education in this country is heavily regulated, especially at the K12 level. It’s possible that this regulation is blocking potential innovation. Regulator inhibitors likely include: monopolized school operations, unified standards and annual assessments, and lack of family choice.

2. Lack of radically innovative talent.

The education industry might be failing to attract radical innovators into the field, perhaps because of some combination of culture, structure, or prestige. The true innovators might be drawn to other fields.

3. Lack of a profit motive.

A profit motive can spur innovation, especially when it comes to rapid marginal improvements to existing products (think Moore’s law). The lack of profit motive in education could be a factor in reduced innovation.

4. People don’t really care about learning.

Despite all the fuss about achievement, perhaps people mostly just care about things like status, peer groups, and safety– so the producers of education respond to this demand. Parents may be both value non-academic qualities and be very risk adverse, each of which could hamper innovation.

5. There’s not much low-hanging fruit.

Perhaps schools still look the same because the way we are doing it is the best way to educate children for a reasonable price. Limits on human capital and technology might make it (currently) difficult to radically improve them model.

 6. There’s actually a lot of innovation happening.

One might argue that innovation is occurring – it’s just less visible. Advances in data-driven instruction might be an example of a “silent” innovation.

So which is it? 

I imagine most people would point to the first four causes (regulation, talent, no profit motive, status seeking) if they were pushed to explain why innovation is lagging in education.

And I think each of these causes does play a role.

But there are also pretty big holes in each of these explanations:

If regulation is hampering innovation, then why aren’t private schools innovating more?

If a lack of talent is hampering innovation, how to square this with the fact that TFA out recruits most industries when it comes to Ivy League talent?

If lack of profit motive is hampering innovation, then why don’t we seem more innovation in textbooks, computer programs, and school operations – all of which have significant profit motives?

If people don’t really care about learning, then how come the recent New Orleans study on parent choice demonstrated that academic performance was the amongst the highest rated determinants of school selection?

There’s not much low-hanging fruit?

I’m not sure, but perhaps.

I will say this: I think there’s less low-hanging fruit than most people think there is.

That being said, I do think all of the above factors are real, and, to some extent, are inhibiting innovation. I just don’t think any of them are slam-dunk answers.

Perhaps if we continue to make headway in areas such as deregulation and talent, then we’ll see much more innovation.

But there’s a chance we might not.

It’s possible that the real innovation breakthroughs won’t occur until artificial intelligence is much more sophisticated, or the cost of labor is dramatically reduced.

My guess is that both of these circumstances will occur in the next fifty years.

*This post is based on a conversation I had with a charter leader in Memphis. As per usual, talking to awesome people continues to be a primary source for my thinking.

9 thoughts on “Why So Little Innovation in Education?

  1. Christine

    I’m not the expert on innovation in education, but I would like to shout “amen” to the first part of this post. To all the people who talk publicly about innovation, INNOVATE with your presentation!

  2. JohnC

    I think there is one very big slam-dunk reason why there has not been more innovation – the consumer is not really the customer. There are a number of interesting disconnects that occur in K-12 education – the consumer really is sophisticated (at least possibly until HS) and doesn’t have access to many choices. The parent isn’t in the class all day and if they were, they can’t easily “change the channel” and find a different teacher or school. The municipality is driven by a whole range of different motives. For-profit colleges thrived (where done right) by addressing the unmet needs of the actual consumers – working adults seeking degree completion or job advancement. They provided real world training, flexible hours and a support staff that actually treated the student like the customer he/she is. The K-12 market suffers because unlike any other market the provider-consumer feedback loop is disconnected. Even in healthcare, which is somewhat disconnected, innovation is rewarded by (1) consumer/doctor demand for improving/saving lives and (2) funding sources that will pay for this. The only way innovation increases is to eliminate, or reduce, this disconnect.

      1. JohnC

        I think it’s through transparency thereby empowering parents and regional regulators/authorizers to make decisions. You have been right about this for awhile. The simpler you make it for these groups to understand baselines, past performance and current trends the easier it is to determine if a child is getting what he/she requires. If not, then you get push back. It will never be as fluid as other markets because even “choice” means one or two other options, but it’s infinitely better than today. The only true quantum leap – and I have no perspective to know if it could happen – is if education ever really evolved to “schools of one”.

  3. badgehs

    I am expert in education innovation; the answer is all of the above. Along with (or led by) answer 7.

    There’s a tremendous amount of innovation out there. It doesn’t always scale as far or as fast as we’d like. Plus, schools were far behind to begin with.

    Add to this that innovation costs money. Schools themselves actually run rather tightly. Even state education agencies, for their scope of mission, run lean on personnel and discretionary funds.

    Foundations are notoriously conservative. They fund evolutionary change, not revolutionary investigation.

    Here in Ohio, we have a law that would allow stretching constraints 1-5 above. I have on the table a plan for a statewide laboratory to expand, encourage, explore, and exploit uses of this law.

    People are using this law (credit flexibility) in small, disconnected ways. Their results are predictably small and disconnected.

    Instead, these local efforts should work together to share ideas and resources, to combine marketing efforts, to brand and promote the common opportunity, and to directly engage students, parents, teachers, and community members.

    The opportunity presented would give high school students much of the innovation and freedom that is so often called for. As John C says, the consumer is not really the consumer in education. Credit flexibility offers to bridge even that. To put more HS students in the position of active consumption.

    Sadly, my conclusion after 4 years of advocating for this type of innovation is: edu-leaders are innovated out. They want to be able to stand on stage and loudly call for innovation. Actually seeing schools change in structural ways—maybe not so much. When I say edu-leaders here, I don’t mean the average principal. They’d probably embrace change faster than the conference speakers.

    Recently we entered the DML Trust challenge, at face one of the most innovative funding opporunities out there. No one at DML even reviewed our full proposal, “A Statewide Laboratory for Connected Learning.”

    Take a look at the finalists: http://dmlcompetition.net/proposals/ Look for one that really embraces educational innovation. Which of these is potentially transformational? Maybe a couple?

    DML largely embraced proposals for small tweaks to the system. Even among the thirty finalists which earned recognition, but not necessarily funding.

    We’ve seen the same response from other ‘cutting edge’ funding sources.

    So: the answer is 7) people have as much innovation as they truly want.

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