Education Innovation is Everything, Nothing, Beautiful

Meadow at dusk

Meadow at dusk via Getty Images

The national conversation about innovation in the education sector is lively, but nascent and relatively unsophisticated.  When simply trying to pin down a definition for innovation, I feel like I’m watching this scene from I Heart Huckabees where there’s confusion over what’s actually happening but everyone generally agrees that it’s beautiful.

There’s good reason for our confusion. For most of the history of public schooling in America, large, bureaucratic school districts have delivered education to students. While it’s possible for districts to be innovative, most aren’t. The structure is designed for stability and predictability, and it strives for efficiency rather than creativity, responsiveness, and rapid, iterative problem solving.

But now a number of factors are rapidly changing the education landscapes in America’s cities. Like it or not, what we’re experiencing is an era of emerging education markets–highly regulated ones, but markets nonetheless. And one benefit of markets is the opportunity for innovation. However, emerging markets don’t yet have the same supports as more mature ones.

For example, government and private sector have prioritized R&D to stay competitive domestically and globally for decades. The education sector does not. The U.S. invests 0.15 percent of its federal education budget on R&D versus other industries that spend twenty times more on average. What’s more, leading industries routinely spend between 10-30 percent of their sales revenue to create new products and services.

R&D funding has propelled the private sector to create comprehensive policy, finance, cultural, human capital, and market structures to support innovation. It’s seen as a necessity. Conversations are about how much to spend on R&D, not whether to spend on it.

The result of a field excited by the promise of innovation without the infrastructure to test ideas and research results is that anecdotes and opinions often stand in for data-driven analysis and objectivity.

Ultimately, we should be driving toward a sector that prioritizes the development of new good ideas and systematic implementation and evaluation of them. Education leaders need tools that can synthesize disparate sources of data into meaningful information so they can understand the real impact of reform strategies, highlight successes, identify investment decisions, and benchmark progress against others as they transition to a dynamic new education sector.

Much of this will require having a trusted definition of innovation. To know what’s working—an essential part of the innovation process—we have to be able to locate the signal in the noise.

So what is innovation anyway?

As part of a project to test hop the sector’s first city-level education innovation index, we were faced with defining innovation in order to measure it. Instead of starting from scratch, we turned to the OECD’s Oslo Manual (p. 46), the widely accepted authority for empirical research of private sector innovation. We adapted their definition of what constitutes an innovation for use in the education sector:

An innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product, process, policy, organization type, organization model, or organization practice.

Two notes on our definition. First, there is some room for judgment on what is “new or significantly improved.” Our working threshold for whether an innovation is new is if it hasn’t existed anywhere else before or existed in another field and was adopted by an organization in the education sector. Venture philanthropy, modeled after venture capital, is a prime example. Our threshold for “significantly improved” is whether an innovation is fundamentally different in some way and has resulted or is likely to result in better outcomes.

The second note is that an innovation must be implemented. A product (good or service) must be introduced into the market and processes must be put into actual use. Minimum viable products, prototypes, concepts, and rhetoric don’t count.

Here are a few examples of what we consider innovations in today’s education sector:

New Significantly improved
Product 3D printer Modular classroom furniture
Process Common enrollment Earlier teacher hiring to avoid vacancies
Policy Education Spending Accounts Weighted student funding formula
Org Type Venture philanthropy Relay GSE
Org Model Virtual school Blended Learning School
Org Practice Pay-to-quit  (ala Zappos) Anti-bias hiring

Our hope with this definition and our innovation index is to introduce a healthy dose of rigor based on the high standards that benefit other fields. We’ve already found that having an unequivocal definition has provided us with a foundation for making higher order decisions.