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(2) “We need to transform our outdated factory model of schooling.”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