The Four Headwinds Threatening Pandemic-Era Education Innovation

Former Bellwarian Jason Weeby, who helped to develop and lead our work around education innovation, offers a series for Ahead of the Heard that makes the case for maintaining some pandemic-era education innovations. Learn more about Bellwether’s work here. Read more posts in this series here.

In my last post, I outlined how teachers, principals, and education system leaders responded to the pandemic with millions of experiments that have the potential to strengthen, diversify, and augment traditional schooling if — and only if — innovators, system leaders, and policymakers heed the lessons. Unfortunately, there are four strong headwinds that could stop them from blooming into durable innovations. 

A Deep Desire to Return to Normal

After months of physical isolation, prolonged stress and anxiety, upended routines, financial uncertainty, and, for some, death and grief, people just want to go back to normal. Our collective desire to return to pre-pandemic life is the force most likely to drown promising education innovations.

Few routines are more emblematic of normalcy as sending children off to school in the morning and welcoming their return in the afternoon. For many families, life will feel like it’s back to normal when their kids can safely go into a school building to be taught by three-dimensional teachers every day. Not only do schools provide a safe and structured place for students to learn, but they also provide childcare that enables the American workforce to go to work. We’ve learned the hard way that when childcare is removed, those who don’t work remotely are put in a position to choose between their employment and their children’s safety and support. Women, who provide the lion’s share of childcare duties, have left the workforce in droves since the pandemic began. Having their children, especially young ones, learning at home is taxing. 

Educators are burnt out too. An EdWeek Research Center survey found that teacher morale is low and, “32 percent of teachers are reporting that they are likely to leave their jobs this year even though they would have been unlikely to do so prior to the pandemic.” State and district leaders have been through the wringer for nearly a year as well. The steady drumbeat of high-stakes decisions coupled with new ways of assessing, teaching, and supporting students takes a toll even on those who get excited by new instructional and school models. If we knew that student mental health and academic performance were improving, all of the tumults may be worth it, but projections of learning loss from CREDO, NWEA, McKinsey and others are worrisome. A recent analysis of standardized test results from 18 school districts in California gives credence to those projections. State-level student outcome data will take some time to materialize (if it does at all). 

A System Built for Stability, Not Innovation

With a few exceptions, districts, like most taxpayer-funded public agencies, don’t engage in innovation activities. They’re structured to provide services and maintain compliance, two functions that share little in common with innovation. This is important, to be sure. Operating safe and effective schools is a complex enterprise and taxpayers should have confidence that their taxes are being spent responsibly. Yet, most school systems are so focused on executing their core business that they fail to concurrently look for, develop, and assimilate promising new ideas, a concept management experts Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman call organizational ambidexterity

Even districts like Denver and San Francisco that had in-house innovation labs struggled to translate their findings into the broader system. Principals who developed a high-potential school model that deviated from the standard ones had to lobby for exemptions to rigid requirements around instructional time, school calendars, and student-teacher ratios. If they succeed in doing so, they still run the risk of their effort being pigeonholed as a pilot or magnet instead of being adopted more broadly.

There are some reasons to be hopeful about school districts’ ability to foster innovation, however. Chief innovation officers are becoming more commonplace, which signals that superintendents are serious about seeking out needs and finding new solutions for them. Unfortunately, they often have a hodgepodge of responsibilities, including activities unrelated to innovation, and it’s an uphill battle to innovate in the confines of a school district bureaucracy. Innovation can happen in school districts, but it’s usually a bug rather than a feature of the enterprise.

Most of the innovation that will persist, then, will occur outside of traditional district schools. When the pandemic started, charter schools capitalized on their nimbleness and autonomy to adapt their models quickly. Private schools used their independence to create safe in-person learning environments and saw a swell in enrollment. Community-based organizations repurposed their staff and space to form learning hubs. Pandemic pods and companies to support their formation emerged in a matter of weeks. Microschools popped up to fill the vacuum that districts created with their sluggish response. It shouldn’t be surprising that nonprofits and companies can respond faster to needs than big public institutions; their autonomy and small scale are critical factors.

Teachers Unions

The iconic teacher union boss, Albert Shanker, knew that job protections and school innovation aren’t mutually exclusive. His commentary on the topic shows his principled approach to testing new ideas, scaling only the ones that proved to be effective, and rejecting profiteers. Unfortunately, today’s teachers’ unions often oppose new programs or school models that depart from traditional staffing, evaluation, or compensation models even when they don’t threaten workers’ rights. Similar behavior is on display now in places such as Chicago and San Francisco where unions demand conditions far beyond what public health officials say is necessary to reopen schools safely. In both cases, a willingness to negotiate in goodwill could mean better learning environments for students and potentially better working environment for adults but it seems that advocating for a vocal minority that insists on upholding the status quo has become modus operandi for many unions. It should be no surprise that a labor union prioritizes its membership’s demands over other competing priorities. Still, a stalwart lack of willingness to test new concepts forfeits innovation to charter and private schools and misses out on the collective genius of millions of teachers.

A Lack of Philanthropic Funding for Innovation

When someone has a good idea and wants to test it out, she will need money to develop a plan, purchase supplies, pay stipends, or subsidize time away from her full-time job. 4.0 Schools does this through fellowships and small grants to test ideas. NewSchools Venture Fund, my former employer, provides grants big enough so that innovators can quit their jobs and focus on developing their ideas full time. Unfortunately, philanthropic giving like this is an exception to the rule. Most of the $64 billion given annually to education initiatives sustain existing organizations instead of seeding new ideas. Compared to the $136.5 billion that venture capitalists invested in the U.S. in 2019, investment in education innovation is infinitesimal. 

For ideas that require time-consuming and rigorous academic research and the development of solutions based on research findings, big dollar, and patient R&D funding are necessary. This is common knowledge in many government agencies and the private sector, where an R&D infrastructure consisting of comprehensive policy, finance, cultural, human capital, and market structures to support innovation is solidly in place. The same can’t be said for the education sector. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education spent $238 million on R&D projects, just 0.001% of the federal government’s $132 billion R&D spend for that year. And that’s only publicly funded R&D. U.S. companies spent $378 billion of their own money on R&D in 2018. State education agencies and school districts rarely devote public funds to innovation because of their risk aversion and lack of capacity to conduct innovation activities. Education nonprofits have a difficult time attracting philanthropic funds for unproven ideas. All this amounts to a sector underperforming for millions of students without an engine that fosters promising new ideas. 

The good news is that there are ways policymakers, funders, and education system leaders can create the conditions for pandemic-era innovations to benefit the students that need them the most. I’ll address that in my next post.

You can read more from this series here.

One thought on “The Four Headwinds Threatening Pandemic-Era Education Innovation

  1. Kristan

    A fifth headwind is the continuing challenge of sharing successful innovations across districts and states. Some of the state work during the pandemic addressed this challenge and should potentially be considered as a lasting innovation, South Carolina’s statewide training for teachers and principals in virtual instruction is an example. It provided educators with timely access to training in virtual instruction, aligned to the South Carolina teacher standards.

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