The Difference Between Improvement and Innovation

Improvement is doing things better. Innovation is doing things differently. Well-deployed technology enables both. Two bloggers missed these important distinctions this week.
In a very strange post Sunday, Jay Mathews suggested that neither improvement nor innovation were really possible. He said we just needed more teachers. But Mathews knows that we tried that “add more people” strategy and it didn’t add much benefit. He made the wild claim that technology over the last twenty years has been an attempt to “find some cheaper substitute for teachers.” He suggested schools “bought new technologies to save money.” That is just not the case at all. In fact, we’ve doubled real spending on education by adding staff and technology to the school the way we’ve always done it.
Mathews criticized Scholastic’s READ 180, a proven reading program that has been extensively evaluated and is one of the few programs to make the What Works Clearinghouse. Unprompted by Mathew’s strange barrage, I interviewed the CEO of Scholastic about the success of READ 180 in a blog on Monday. The disastrous result of the Highland Park district did not result from a faulty program, it was an example of chronic failure and a lack of oversight and accountability. Jay should have criticized the educational malpractice of the Highland Park district instead of launching into a random tirade on a proven program.
Mathews pushed a simple solution: kids just need more time with good teachers. Yet, that’s easier said than done. Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel, the Malcolm Gladwells of education, have shown the “good teacher in every classroom” goal is not realistic. They wrote a smart blog last week titled “EdTech Innovators Get Results Now by Leveraging Great Teachers.”
With smaller budgets and higher standards, we need to rethink everything we do and look for ways to leverage talent with technology. Results from schools that are breaking the mold indicate that it is very possible to deliver very good academic results that are product of customized learning and more relationship time.
The second blogger wrote a favorable piece on technology. Patrick Ledesma outlined personalized learning and identified ways that technology could improve the process for teachers. He suggested that the process started with teaching, not technology. That’s true for process improvement but not for innovation. The “start with teaching” approach dramatically limit the solution set by confining solutions to traditional practices and constrains.
Both improvement and innovation start with a focus on outcomes, “What do we want students to know and be able to do?” A process improvement approach asks, “How can I do things better?” The question may be trapped within given constraints: one teacher, 30 kids, 180 days, and the mandate to get all students to an identified level of proficiency. If we start with these given conditions, the possible ‘solutions’ will yield only incremental improvement in results.
Innovation, on the other hand, searches for a more fundamental question like, “What sequence of learning experiences would help individual students succeed?” The explosion of new learning technologies allows us to rethink the kinds of learning experiences we can string together for and with students. Following are eight examples of innovations that rethink learning pathways and relationships:

  1. Military training: Clarity on job requirements and frequent assessment helps the military constantly update rapid pathways to mastery that blend multi-modal learning.
  2. Adaptive learning: Building on the customization of games and adaptive learning products like i-Ready and Dreambox allow each student to chart a unique pathway to success through engaging content.
  3. Competency-based higher ed: A focus on outcomes helped WGU create a competency-based approach to higher education where students move at their own pace and get credit for showing what they know.
  4. Competency-based K-12: Blended learning in K-12, particularly flex models like AdvancePath, are demonstrating the success of combining flexibility, choice, and teacher support.
  5. Customized learning: School of One, a middle school math pilot in New York City, is a great example of a customized approach for every student based on a smart recommendation engine.
  6. Alternative approaches: An appreciation for learning differences allowed MIND Research Institute to create a new visual pathway to math comprehension called ST Math. It involves a shift to a game-based, instructional approach multiple times weekly.
  7. Building basic skills: Blended learning pioneers at Rocketship Education use a two-hour computer lab to build basic skills and allow teachers to focus class time on higher order skills. (Here’s an inside look how they are addressing the data challenge.)
  8. Leveraging talent: Carpe Diem is a top-performing secondary school in Arizona serving about 290 student by combines online learning with workshops taught by six master teachers. (See the Hassels’ for 10 specific school models that leverage talent.)

Some people would add flipped classrooms to this list of innovations but in most cases they belong in the process improvement category–a strategy an individual teacher is using to boost engagement and achievement. An example of real innovation is the Los Altos Khan Academy implementation where teachers re-engineered student learning, teacher roles, and how students demonstrate learning and progress.
The real problem Mathews (and the ACLU) missed is that public policy for too long has accepted chronic school failure. The promising innovation in this case is the spread of interventions like the Louisiana Recovery School District, a mechanism that the state is using to close bad schools and open good schools. Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority is the best hope for a good school for Melvin Marshall. When EAA Chancellor Covington gets around to closing Highland Park, he’ll replace it with a blended learning school that customizes student learning and increases quality time with teachers.
Disclosure: MIND Research Institute and Curriculum Associates are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.  Tom is a director of AdvancePath. This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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