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Earlier this month, I had the tremendous experience of being part of the Summit for Innovative Education, hosted by McREL. The event featured two dueling keynote speakers (Stanford’s Eric Hanushek and Oregon’s Yong Zhao), who offered dramatically different visions of what American education should be. While the contrast in messages and suggested strategies from Hanushek and Zhao is worthy of significant discussion on its own, what struck me most was the tension between the concepts of reliability and innovation in building better school systems.
McREL’s own “Network for Innovative Education” seems to be the embodiment of this tension. Much of the work of the group focuses on the thinking around High Reliability Organizations, or systems that are designed to mitigate the possibility of failure to smaller and smaller probabilities through the use of clear procedures and intentional adaptations to changing circumstances.
At a surface review, the core concepts in the high reliability frame are somewhat antithetical to innovation. The goal with a high reliability approach is to make sure that something works with high quality and low variability. When rigidly applied, there is little room in this high reliability frame for leaps of faith toward untested notions based on possible theories of action.
Innovation, on the other hand, requires such leaps of faith and a willing embrace of failure as an option. For innovations to take off, organizations and the people in them take risks with no guarantee that things will work as anticipated or work at all. Innovation calls on us to cast aside convention and the safety of reliability in exchange for the possibility of a breakthrough that can possibly change everything.
Frequently, we talk about “innovation” as the cure-all for our problems in education. But what does that really mean and how would we go about it? Not all innovative ideas are good ideas and I would argue that it is educationally irresponsible to abandon evidence-based practices in favor of an untested “innovation” when the future of our children is the price of the wager.
As a comparison, do we really want “innovative” surgical procedures when we go under the knife? How about stepping on an “innovative” aircraft piloted using “unconventional” techniques? As the costs of failure grow, the choice of an innovative route must be made prudently and thoughtfully with a risk/reward mindset.
But, we also know innovation is so crucially important for continued system growth. The spirit of innovation fuels our passion and curiosity. Highly reliable or not, what a joyless existence it would be to spend a lifetime pulling the same handle on the assembly line. Either in search of a better way or tapping into a very real human need for creativity, innovation is important.
So the answer must be in some kind of balance between these two important concepts of reliability and innovation. Particularly when the stakes are high, we need established procedures and protocols so that we deliver high quality instruction with low variability and the probability of our system failing students is as low as we can possibly get it. At the same time, we must intentionally foster innovation. We do this by supporting with resources, creating controlled environments where iteration and failure are tolerated so learning occurs, and by protecting the innovation from what can be the crushing and stifling weight of convention. We also need processes where the new learning is incorporated into the standard operating procedures so that a cycle of learning and improvement takes shape within the context of a high reliability system.
Then there is also the special case of the disruptive innovation – the one that comes out of seemingly nowhere that people ignore, dismiss, or are just too busy running in the gerbil treadmill that they don’t even see it coming at all. The disruptive innovation is going to take things over all on its own, creating a new paradigm and way of doing things. On the other side of the disruptive innovation, high reliability concepts will again emerge to put in place standard procedures and protocols to make the new paradigm more stable and deliver with even higher quality and low variability.
So when it comes to the notions of reliability and innovation, it is so important that we not see these concepts as either/or but instead as a balanced set – where both are necessary in an ever progressing evolution toward a better education system.
Acknowledgement to Battelle for Kids Executive Director Jim Mahoney for the inspiration and structure of this speech.
Good afternoon and thank you so much for the honor of being here to close down what has been a very successful conference. I’d like to express my appreciation to all the education leaders here, especially school board members. Your love, dedication, and service to your communities inspires us all. Thank you for everything you do to help move Iowa’s schools from good to great to world-class.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a book a couple of years ago titled “Eat, Pray, Love” that chronicled her personal journey from a tough period in her life to a better place. My wife has both read the book and seen the movie. I’ve been resistant to both, for obvious reasons! I believe Brad Pitt is a lead character in the movie, who incidentally bears a striking resemblance to Governor Branstad. Words of wisdom – take every available opportunity to butter up the boss!
In her personal journey, Gilbert related her story to “Eat,” meaning have fun and enjoy life’s blessings, “Pray” in attending to the importance of her spiritual journey, and “Love” in her work to build meaningful relationships with people in her life.
I’d like to share with you my three concepts relating to the work all of us have to do as education leaders. I think these three concepts are important to any leader doing the important work of improving schools, but I hope you will consider and ask what your three concepts might be as well.
First, Courage – Let’s start with an assumption about better schools. “All the easy stuff has already been done. The low hanging fruits have already been picked. The slow, fat rabbits have already been cooked.”
Because of this, leading meaningful change for everyone in this room means confronting difficult issues, entrenched positions, and wicked/complex/vexing problems.
Confronting the important issues comes with conflict, contention, and pressures that will have an effect on even the strongest among us. There is an undeniable cost associated with leadership … this is a sacrifice that everyone in this room has signed up for out of love for your kids and your communities.
Leadership involves having the courage to take on the meaningful issues irrespective of that cost. It takes courage to pressure your organizations into a place of disequilibrium, uncomfortableness, and uncertainty and also be willing to serve as beacons of strength, persistence, and commitment in the uneven and imperfect process of change.
It takes courage to press for meaningful change. For the sake of our children – we must have that courage.
Next, Curiosity – futurist and author Seth Godin wrote that we are all born with innate curiosity and incredible imagination. At age 2 we are all musicians, experimenting with sounds on pots and pans and our own voices. At age 4 we are all artists, experimenting with shape, color, line – engaged in the work of creation. At around age 7 some amazing teacher has taught us to read and we are all poets, combining words and sounds in unusual, fun ways. Perhaps at age 10 we all become scientists, collecting and experimenting with the world around us – raising all sorts of interesting questions and looking for evidence of truth.
A sad fact for all of us is that as we become adults, many of us lose this natural curiosity.
And in many cases we lose curiosity out of the very adult need to be “right.”
Sometimes we become too preoccupied with winning the moment or the debate – we lose track of the fact that our lives are a process of learning and learning requires curiosity. If you aren’t learning and growing, you aren’t living and so long as we retain that capacity to learn and grow – we thrive. It’s not about always being “right,” it should be about always learning.
The more we make our lives about winning the arguments instead of learning the lessons – the more we lose one of the great joys of our human existence.
Everyone in this room is an education leader. If you haven’t already felt it, enormous pressure will be put on all of us to have all the answers, to come up with the easy solutions, and to make mistake free decisions and live mistake free lives – as if that were even possible.
While we must do our best to make good decisions that are often technical in nature, we must also work to protect our fundamental curiosity – that spark of question and imagination that makes learning possible and keeps all of us growing.
Protecting our curiosity keeps us all learners.
Finally, Commitment – everyone in this room shares a deep commitment born out of love for our children, our schools, our neighbors, and our communities.
We all want a better education system, but the process of getting them involves a meaningful, personal, and even spiritual commitment to the moral importance and purpose of this work.
All of us have to make this commitment to better schools a driving part of all our lives.
Real improvement is difficult, challenging, messy, iterative work – but our schools so desperately need a genuine – an honest – a meaningful commitment from every education leader that we will put ourselves on the line, as many times as that takes, to bring about the meaningful changes and improvements our schools require.
I believe these three concepts of “Courage, Curiosity, and Commitment” are valuable and important to any leader. I hope my thinking has been in some way of service to you in your work toward better schools for your community. I am honored to be with you today and please know you have my best wishes in the days to come.
This past week I had the chance to visit Harvard and be part of the “Learning from the International Experience” conference. First, what an incredible honor for me to get to meet some real giants in the education policy realm, notably Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek. The event centered on the release of a new report called “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete” followed by two days of discussion on the condition of education in the United States and, more importantly, what we might learn from high performing countries to improve.
I’d first say that the results of the study aren’t fresh news by any stretch. The argument that the U.S. education system is floundering and puts the country’s economic health at risk goes back to the industrial revolution. The same argument was used again in the Sputnik era, in the 1980′s with the release of “A Nation at Risk”, and even more recently through the “achievement gap” lens of No Child Left Behind in a McKinsey report. One of the authors of the Harvard paper, education scholar Eric Hanushek, has been hammering at this issue for some time.
The U.S. continues to come up mediocre in these rankings but there are certainly some limitations to their utility, as these pure aggregate average score approaches aren’t taking into account poverty, equity, or social considerations. Also, this data is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the U.S. remains the most vibrant and adaptive economy in the world, most of the top universities in the world are in the U.S., it takes the rest of the world combined to equal the number of patents issued in the U.S. in a single year, and there are (by far) more Nobel Prize winners from the U.S. than any other (acknowledgement to Seton Hall’s Chris Tienken for this list of reminders).
These points should be used to counterbalance the discussion, but we would be foolish to ignore the message of the economists and political scientists that given the global nature of this economy compared to any time in our past we absolutely should be investigating the approaches used by the highest performing systems and pulling them into the playbook for American education.
I must admit I was disappointed by the conclusions of some of the economists at the conference that our reaction to this most recent illustration of U.S. educational mediocrity should be centered around “charter schools,” and “performance pay.” Keep in mind, I am an advocate for increased school choice and compensation reform, but I also realize they only take us so far.
While we should broaden these terms and discussions to consider the possibility of how “school choice” and “strategic compensation” could improve the American system, these do not (at least in my review) seem to be the major drivers in building great schools in looking at the highest performing systems. If the aim of this conference was really “Learning from the International Experience” then we would see lessons around clarity on student outcomes and a subsequent alignment of instruction and measurement. We would also see a hyperfocus on improving the quality of the educator workforce through a variety of approaches. Finally, we see systems that try things and make mistakes, but most importantly keep up the work and learning about getting better.
My takeaway was that we need to keep our eyes on the ball here. Improving schools is about teaching and learning coupled with a process of continuous improvement and innovation. To the degree that school choice and compensation figure into a framework on better teaching, learning, and innovation then they absolutely should be part of the discussion.
Any ideas we glean from other countries has to be considered against the culture of the American education system. In the U.S., our system has a heavy flavor of accountability in the form of standardized measures and (increasingly) individual measures of effectiveness. Our focus on accountability is creating what I’d consider an “over-reaction” from some in the education community who fantasize about an end to accountability and measures. I’d venture that this is pure fantasy and this over-reaction discounts that we do have much better performance data about our schools than we have had at any point in the past and this data, though admittedly imperfect, is also useful.
To take the lessons from the international experience and graft it into the American system, our question going forward should be “how do we get the right yin/yang mix of teaching-learning-innovation with accountability?”
Last month I asked Iowans three simple questions about education.
1. What should we stop doing?
2. What should we keep doing?
3. What should we start doing?
I was overwhelmed with the response. On this site alone, I had 100 detailed, thoughtful, and honest responses. In addition, I had 42 emails sent to me answering the questions and met in person with several groups and individuals who gave me their perspectives on these questions.
I have taken the results and drawn my conclusions on what Iowans told me we should stop, keep, and start doing. I’ve put them together in a Prezi Presentation, which I will use in talking to some groups around the state for the next couple of weeks.
For those who won’t have the chance to hear me talk, I’m pasting the link to my Prezi here. While it won’t be quite as detailed without my narration and weird sense of humor, I hope you’ll get my drift.
Please review, and I welcome your comments and continued thoughts.
In closing, thanks so much to everyone who contributed. I can’t think of a better way to have started our conversation about Iowa’s future.
Des Moines, IA
Too often in education, we fence ourselves into “this versus that” and “us versus them” debates and discussions about what schools should be doing in order to better serve kids. To elaborate, let me toss out a few that come to mind…
Teachers versus Administrators
Reformers versus Unions
Academics versus Artistry
Collaboration versus Direction
Accountability versus Trust
Innovation versus Tradition
My simple point is that none of these ideas are necessarily mutually exclusive. Further, we do harm to our collective creativity and thinking about schools when we see things in these black and white polemics.
Isn’t it time we started blowing up these false dichotomies? I mean, aren’t academics and artistry both really important? Isn’t Randi Weingarten a national union leader and a leading school reformer? Can’t people collaborate to meet the vision of a daring leader?
Its 12:01 EST on October 15, 2010. That’s my challenge to the world for this day – find a false dichotomy and blow it up.