Don't Ever Stop | American Education: Innovative or Unimaginative?
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American Education: Innovative or Unimaginative?

  |   PersonalIzed Mastery

Gene and I recently read the current report, Measuring Innovation in Education, from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2014). This is the group responsible for conducting the international PISA assessment program. In its executive summary, it has created a metric to measure the innovations in education internationally. It “asserts that the ability to measure innovation is essential to an improvement strategy in education.” Interestingly enough, most of the innovations the United States claimed were focused on the use of measuring student progress through assessments.  The United States is ranked 24th in an international list.   The top five US innovations in organizational policy and practice and pedagogical practice are listed below:

Top 5 US innovations in organization policy and practice Top 5 US innovations in pedagogical practice      
More use of student assessments for monitoring student progress over time More observation and description in secondary school science lessons
More use of assessments for national or district benchmarking More individualized reading instruction in primary school classrooms
More use of assessment data to inform parents of student progress More use of answer explanation in primary mathematics
More external evaluation of secondary school classrooms More relating of primary school lessons to everyday life
More parental service on secondary school committees More text interpretation on primary lessons 


Now compare the US list to Hungary’s, rated 6th on the list:

Hungary’s Top 5 innovations in organization policy and practice Hungary’s Top 5  innovations in pedagogical practice               
More remedial mathematics and science education in secondary schools More individualized instruction in primary school classrooms
More parental service on school committees More observation and description in secondary school science lessons
More incentives for teachers More use of computers to develop skills in primary and secondary school science
More enrichment education for secondary mathematics students More use of computers as reference resources in primary and secondary school science
More peer evaluations for teachers in primary education More Internet availability in primary school classrooms


Hungary’s Top 5 list seems to be more innovative and rely less on assessments and more on providing students the tools they need to be learners. The Hungarians seem to have adopted Personalized Mastery strategies to learning more than the schools in the United States. After reading this article and our recent experience in a district, we felt the need to explore the culture of innovation in American education. First, we will create a working definition of innovation. Next, we will explore five barriers to innovation and what can be done to hurdle these barriers.

What is innovation?

After looking through several sources, we landed on this definition for “innovation” that most aligned to our thinking from Jeff Dance, Fresh Consulting, “innovation is something fresh (original, new or improved) that creates value.” (Dance, J. It’s not doing more of the same thing.

The innovation process involves experiencing empathy for the consumer, putting yourself in their shoes and realizing the unmet needs of the consumer. The next step in the process is brainstorming or ideation of possible solutions of the problem. Prototyping is the third step in which the team designs a physical possible solution and takes it back to the consumer to see if the solution meets his/her needs. If the prototype doesn’t meet their needs, the creator doesn’t throw it out, instead refinements are made to better meet the consumer’s needs. This process is different than piloting a new strategy or approach, when a pilot may be discontinued, if unsuccessful. The last step in the innovation process is evaluation. Is the final product meeting the needs when widely used? Can the product be used efficiently and effectively? (Paul Facteau, personal communication, May 1, 2012) This concept of prototyping aligns with our philosophy of the Plan-Do-Check- Adjust process.

Overcoming barriers to innovation

In a country such are ours, where innovation is seen as more assessments, the reader can imagine there may be impediments to real innovation. Peter Andrews from IBM Business Institute (, 2014) discusses five possible barriers to innovation:

  • Silo-ing
  • Risk Avoidance
  • Inadequate funding
  • Time commitment
  • Incorrect measures

Silo-ing: Often powerful people in institutions see innovations as a threat to their power base. They use positional authority and institutional plans and routines to maintain the status quo and quash ideas coming from the bottom up. What sends stakeholders into silos is the history of the organization with innovation and turf protection. To avoid this pitfall, all stakeholder groups need to be involved in the innovation’s creation in order to understand the value the innovation will have for them. It is imperative to keep stakeholder groups aligned to the innovation and informed of the changes. This involves the leaders being visible and developing relationships to get a deep understanding of the real concerns and interests of different stakeholders and the boundaries within which they must work to succeed.

Risk avoidance: Most people struggle with the innovation process. They may not feel they have the skills and knowledge to adapt to the new change. They may not feel like the benefits outweigh the risks they will have to take to try something new. However, they need to weigh the risks of not innovating. Risk avoidance can be mitigated by putting the risk of innovation on the right person, find and develop supporters, anticipate objections and communicate stories that show success with the new ideas, create prototypes so the whole system is not disrupted while processes are smoothed out, and make sure the risk-takers feel safe in the risks they take, whether or not they are successful.

Inadequate funding: When innovations are considered, a question often asked is, “How are we going to pay for this?” Usually there is not a pot of new money so funds will have to be diverted from other projects and programs which can lead to sacrificing sacred cows. Some possible solutions are to call in favors, create an inventory of available funding sources, don’t build everything from scratch; take advantage of other’s work, or break up the plan and simplify to create short-term successes.

Time commitment: Innovations often take more time at the beginning to become an effective practice in the organization. Many times innovations are added to the already over-crowded plate of things to be accomplished. Many times it’s hard to get teachers and staff to let go of old inefficient, habitual practices. The leadership must ensure that benefits are reallocated so the innovation can compete better for the time of staff and create small successes that encourage stakeholders to free up more time.

Incorrect measures: One of the biggest flaws in innovation is not determining the metric and parameters of success at the beginning of the process. It may require new measures not yet in play. All too often traditional metrics are used to measure the success of an innovation and when it doesn’t show results on that metric, the innovation is abandoned. In reading the EOCD article above, we question whether they have defined appropriate innovations that lead to improved achievement. The EOCD are not identifying innovational strategies and practices that can show improved student learning on traditional measures such as PISA and TIMMS. Organizations need to assess the possible measures they will use to determine success of the innovation. Some will be leading indicators that will show progress on the lagging indicator of improved student learning.

We encourage you to examine the innovations with which you have been associated and determine the assets and barriers that caused it to stick or be abandoned. We would love to hear from you on this topic!

AUTHOR - Copper Stoll