A Dozen Reasons Education Can’t Innovate; A Dozen Ways That’s Changing

Formal education (P-20) doesn’t change much. Compared to other sectors, there is little innovation and weak innovation diffusion. There are at least a dozen reasons for the stasis:


  1. Weak performance incentives,

  2. Weak scaling incentives, and even

  3. Weaker innovation incentives.


  1. Low government R&D investment;

  2. HigherEd research focused on the arcane rather than important; and

  3. Low historic venture investment (with some recent improvement).


  1. Strong state and federal policy constraints, and a

  2. Gordian knot of local contracts ensconced in board policies and state laws (i.e., you may need to change three provisions/policies to do anything differently).

Low Sharing

  1. Insular culture and structure prevents permeation; and

  2. Weak sharing inside the sector (but PLCs changing that fast).


  1. Weak change capacity at the school, district, and state level; and

  2. It’s tough to balance improvement and innovation simultaneously.

Perhaps the most significant barrier to innovation is the weight of tradition–the gravity of collective an idealized memories of school (e.g., “Keep Your 3, I Want My A”: What’s Up With Standards-Based Grading? )
Schools just weren’t designed to innovate. To the extent that they reflect intentionality, public delivery systems support equity and continuity. But the shift to digital and competency-based learning requires a lot of innovation and change capacity.
Fortunately a dozen new structures and initiatives are surrounding and infusing the public delivery system to enable the historic shift:

  1. Open & Viral: Teachers, parents, and students are finding, using and sharing free, open, mobile learning applications.
  2. Alternatives: As Michael Barber pointed out in a recent report, “There is… increasing acceptance of non-degree credentials that don’t rely on traditional universities,” resulting in affordable alternatives.
  3. Funders: Philanthropic and venture investment in innovation is up more than 5x in five years (see list of 30 investors).
  4. Government investment: Federal investment in RTTT and I3 resulted in early policy shifts and some promising tools and practices; Ohio’s Straight A Fund is a good example of state support for sustainable and scalable innovations.
  5. Incubators: More than a dozen incubators (e.g., 4.0 Schools) and accelerators (ImagineK12) have sprung up in the last three years supporting new tools and schools.
  6. Short cycles: more iterative development and use of short cycle efficacy trials.
  7. New Schools: funding for innovative new schools (e.g., NGLC and Carnegie).
  8. Turnaround: states (e.g., Michigan EAA) and districts (e.g., Houston Apollo) are using turnaround as an innovation opportunity.
  9. Networks: New and transformed schools are working together in innovative networks (see our Deeper Learning paper for 10 examples).
  10. CMOs: Charter management organizations are scaling quality and infusing innovation (e.g., see Summit Public Schools).
  11. Aggregation: Expanded use of prizes and pull mechanisms, including demand aggregation and shared purchasing, are boosting innovation and efficiency.
  12. Harbormasters: CEE-Trust is a network of city-based foundations, nonprofits and mayor’s offices that work together to support education innovation and reform.

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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