Unleashing Greatness: Barber & Klein Release Playbook for Innovation

How to spark innovation in education systems trapped by tradition and paralyzed by layers of policy and politics? That’s the question addressed by a short paper by two noted experts on the topic.
The core argument is that whole system reform must be paired with systemic innovation. The hard won lesson anchoring the recommendation is that “you can mandate adequacy, but you cannot mandate greatness: it has to be unleashed.”
Unleashing Greatness was drafted by Michael Barber, Chief Education Adviser at Pearson, and former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein. Barber and Klein are chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education.
In response to the need for more productivity, Barber and Klein drafted a playbook that suggests opening up the system to innovations both inside and out, providing enough support to make great ideas a reality and encouraging smart demand for what works.
The short paper outlines nine strategies for system level innovation. Each is supported by two or three short case studies.

1. Provide a compelling vision of the future: Educational leaders need to present a persuasive vision of how the future can be better–who the system should serve and how, innovations on the path forward,and partner roles.

2. Set ambitious goals to force innovation: Ambitious goals should be paired with enough flexibility to create room for new innovation.

3. Create choice and competition: Choices can be created for students, parents and teachers with quality information for all stakeholders.

4. Pick many winners: When launching competitions, or new service models, pick more than one winner. Supporting multiple ideas or approaches at once spurs all providers to continue to improve and compete, whether you are testing new technology tools or new school models.

5. Benchmark and track progress: High-quality data at the school and district level allows leaders (and everyone) to see progress towards the goals.

6. Evaluate and share the success of new innovations: Innovations need to work better than current system. That may take a little time, but there needs to be transparent information on how effective new innovations and technologies are. Schools and education systems should invest in quality performance and impact evaluations of new innovations and broadly share the results.

7. Combine greater accountability and autonomy: Devolving authority to the school-level can remove barriers to innovation and allow school leaders the flexibility to explore new approaches. Increased autonomy needs to be paired with increased accountability, strong support systems, greater transparency and clear performance metrics.

8. Invest in and empower agents of change: New agents of change require support to make their ideas real and effective at scale. System leaders need to provide leadership development, coaching and mentorship and other support systems that enable innovators to succeed. These innovators can be both inside or outside the system; teachers and administrators may be sources of innovation inside while new charter school/academy operators or social entrepreneurs may operate outside the system.

9. Reward successes (and productive failures): Public and private recognition makes it easier for existing innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new actors. Rewards also highlight models of success, giving them greater exposure and increasing the likelihood of expansion. System leaders should reward both successful models and ambitious failures that support their goals and vision.

To their list I’d add a tenth element: incubating new tools and schools. The need for incubation capacity was a central lesson from our Smart Cities project. In February, David Fu, 4.0 Schools, and I suggested, “The layer of inspiration, incubation and intermediation between schools and EdTech entrepreneurs is what will expand access to innovative learning environments, create aggregated demand for investment and new tools and fuel the learning revolution.”
Talent development is another strategy that warrants more emphasis. It requires regional commitment of operators, preparation programs and policymakers. Houston is a pretty good regional example in the U.S.
On the subject of shared vision (#1), I would address the adoption of broader aim including success skills (habits of success). Houston ISD is example of a system that developed a great new outcome frame with a global vision that emphasized dual language (see post on measuring what matters featuring SummitPS.org and NGLC). Like Houston, Marion, OH, did a nice job on updated outcomes.
On choice and competition (#3), the need to proactively ensure equity should not be understated. Few cities pay adequate attention to where new choices are located and which students have transported access to quality options.
The authors conclude, “Sparking the right types of innovation in education is an important part of creating a world where students are able to have better lives and are achieving much higher levels of success.”
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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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