Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Education Innovation Tends to Crash and Burn

Hess doesn't seem to mind privatizing public educational enterprises but his thoughts on the diffusion of innovation - what educators call scaling - are worth a look. He is trying to answer questions about "why it's so hard to scale promising programs, models, pilots, and notions."

This from Rick Hess at Straight Up:
There are...big sets of obstacles when it comes to "scaling" innovation. First, innovative models often rely on tough-to-replicate elements. Second, there are key structural conditions that impede efforts to grow even more replicable models.

First, seemingly successful pilots often depend more on the conditions that attend their adoption and execution than the model itself. Pilots tend to benefit from a number of advantages that disappear when these efforts start to "scale," namely:

• Philanthropic support- Dollars are often available to fund new initiatives. Such funding allows CTE or remedial programs to offer services and opportunities that prove unsustainable when the program expands to new sites that lack the extra resources.

• Expertise- Pilot efforts are, by design, promoted and supported by the experts who have conceived of the model (or intervention). They benefit from intense, sustained, loving attention by those who are most knowledgeable about and invested in the idea. Later sites have less access to that talent.

• Enthusiasm- Pilot efforts are inevitably launched where the leadership (and/or the faculty or instructors) are enthusiastic enough about the venture that they're willing to invest all the energy necessary to launch it. That passion and sense of ownership are enormously helpful in making early iterations successful.

• Accommodating policies- Pilot efforts are frequently launched where they are because the local leadership has the wherewithal to get the waivers, leeway, or support to launch the effort. So a new academic program benefits from special treatment when it comes to staffing rules or funding. When the same models are implemented in less accommodating settings, the models frequently fail to deliver the anticipated results.
Even promising models run afoul of several structural impediments, including:
• Reliance on entrenched institutions
• Lack of price competition
• Lack of outcome comparability
• Discomfort with for-profits

Hess recommends,
• Put a premium on innovations that scale easily- The most difficult innovations to scale are those that rely heavily on talent and complex implementation. The easiest to scale are those that leverage technology or other tools to provide services with few moving parts. For instance, or Facebook are remarkably easy to scale, because most of the quality of the experience is almost identical for thousands or even millions of users. Similarly, is easier to scale than is a program which depends on recruiting and training local tutors.

• Resist the notion that innovative models can readily be housed in existing institutions- Established institutions have established norms, cultures, policies, and routines. No matter how energetic and enthusiastic are those who would adopt innovative models, the difficulties of maneuvering around these realities makes innovation a bad bet. Innovations may be adopted successfully here or there when backed by committed leadership, but they can be quickly bent into unrecognizable forms when adopted by others that are less committed.

• Focus on cost and outcomes in allocating public dollars- Encouraging the successful scaling of innovative models is going to depend in large part on whether the larger environment supports such ventures. An environment dominated by formula funding, hefty subsidies, and few useful measures of quality is designed to accommodate the status quo. Changing that requires changing public policies at the federal, state, and local levels.

All of this helps to explain why "innovation" is a term of endearment in an Apple store, but more likely to sound like an epithet in the nearest teacher workroom or faculty lounge. Resolving this state of affairs will be hard, but probably no harder than watching waves of promising new ideas crash and burn.

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