School & District Management Opinion

On Balancing Improvement and Innovation

By Tom Vander Ark — October 17, 2016 3 min read
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The last two decades of standards-based reform were a series of improvement efforts with a focus on good teaching in every classroom. It included higher expectations with aligned curriculum, assessments and professional development. It left intact basic structures of age cohorts, the agrarian calendar and time-based courses and credits. While well executed, this agenda led to incremental improvements and narrowed gaps.

Innovations including personalized and competency-based learning means doing things differently hoping for step function improvement in traditional as well as broader aims. But it’s hard, often risky work that may require investment in capacity and tools. It may even require starting over and opening new schools.

10 Tips for EdLeaders

In the following recorded presentation and listed below are 10 tips for EdLeaders on balancing improvement and innovation.

1. Leaders make the case for change

2. Leaders made system choices: enterprise or portfolio

  • There are two approaches to making everything together for teachers and students--the one best approach (enterprise) where everybody uses the same curriculum, strategies, tools and systems or every school figures it out approach (portfolio).

3. Leaders balance improvement & innovation

  • Improvement is better, innovation is different; improvement is fidelity, innovation is disruption; improvement is Doug Lemov, innovation is Clay Christensen. EdLeaders need to know the difference and find the right balance for their community.
  • Factors that could influence the balance include capacity, teacher leaders, student challenges, community partners and the budget.
  • Both improvement and innovation take a sustained support from effective leaders--so stick around!

4. Leaders facilitate agreements

  • Good schools have healthy agreements.
  • Improvement takes internal agreements on role and goals, shared strategies.
  • Innovation requires broader external agreements because it often takes investment, involves tradeoffs and risk and may require new methods of reporting progress.

5. Leaders create incentives for innovation

6. Leaders make change doable

  • Gunnar Counselman (@FidelisEd) says students need purpose, path and people to help them succeed in secondary and postsecondary education and offers tips on organizational redesign to support improved learner experience (#LX)
  • EdLeaders facilitate plans that link and sequence change in manageable chunks--phases and projects--with a clear purpose, defined scope, shared metrics and adequate resources.

7. Leaders identify & leverage teacher leaders

  • Fulton County (metro Atlanta) initiated systemic change by identifying and supporting 400 Vanguard Teachers.

8. Leaders open a fast lane

  • Kettle Moraine (metro Milwaukee) allowed teacher leaders to launch themed and blended micro-schools inside existing schools.

9. Sustained (not heroic) leadership produces results

10. Leaders start with an innovation mindset

  • Our three-year Smart Cities investigation identified an innovation mindset as a critical attribute of innovative EdLeaders.
  • Leaders develop an innovation mindset by picking a learning goal each year, reading for breadth, visiting schools to learn, blogging to learn and share and being a vulnerable learner.

For more, see:

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.