Credit: Jason Weeby
When my colleagues Kelly Robson and George Mu and I began a project to measure innovation in a city’s education sector, we knew it was going to be challenging. Innovation isn’t a single thing; you can’t just go out and count innovation. Instead, it’s a combination of many factors, some of which matter more than others.
So we created a composite indicator, a macroeconomic tool that is formed when individual indicators are compiled into a single index, based on an underlying model of the multi-dimensional concept that is being measured. Composite indicators are commonly referred to as indices. They measure concepts like competitiveness, sustainability, and opportunity. We call ours the U.S. Education Innovation Index.
Some of the categories that we included are novel like District Deviation and Dynamism (topics for other posts). Others are more predictable, like innovation-friendly policies and the level of funding available for innovation-specific activities.
However, one category continues to disorient me. It isn’t unusual. I read about it every day. It’s something one would fully expect to see in a measure of a city’s education sector, yet it requires an explanation to anyone who has interrogated our methodology: Student Achievement.
How we ultimately decided to measure student achievement was the product of hours of discussion and analysis. At first, we considered it an output of innovation. “Makes sense,” I thought. If you turn up the dial on innovation activities, new solutions emerge, and then student achievement goes up.
I was content with our tidy framework of inputs and outputs until Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and Matt Candler, founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, introduced me to the innovation paradox and blew up my well-laid plans.
What I was missing was the relationship between success and the motivation to innovate.
Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, is more likely to happen in cities where student achievement is low. In theory, poor or declining student achievement is likely to embolden entrepreneurs and catalyze innovation. In cities where student achievement is perennially low, policymakers and education officials may feel pressure to try new tactics or adopt new policies or methodologies, and thus embrace innovative ideas.
I sketched out what the relationship might look like on a graph above. It’s not as cool looking as Candler’s sketches, but shows the time lag between the implementation of innovation activities and how they should increase student achievement.
The paradox emerges in stage two where innovation activities decline as student achievement remains high. In cities where schools are consistently performing at a high level or are improving steadily, officials may be hesitant or reluctant to change anything out of fear of reversing a positive academic trajectory. Continue reading