School & District Management Commentary

The Vanishing Innovation

By Jeanne Century — September 25, 2009 6 min read

Calls for school improvements that can “scale up” have been part of the education reform dialogue for years. Most recently, they have been tied to the search for “effective models” and “best practices,” with the hope that finding what works and scaling it up will put us well on our way to curing the ills of our education system.

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the circumstances around a product or practice that contribute to its spread, and eventual “tipping” into widespread public acceptance. It’s tempting to think about educational progress in a similar way. How can we identify effective practices that will “tip”?

Unfortunately for education, the interest in getting improvements to spread has been accompanied by a failure to give warranted attention to a second question: How do we get improvements to last? The phrase “scale up and sustain” is also part of our vernacular, but the “sustain” part often gets short shrift. While it is important to understand spread, it is endurance that separates the tipping of fads from meaningful change. Unless the investments we make in innovations have lasting impact, in the end, we have wasted our time and resources and, most importantly, squandered students’ opportunities to learn.

In order to last, innovations must themselves adapt and evolve.

For the past two years, my colleagues and I at the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education have been working to understand how and why reforms in education either do or don’t last. The dearth of research on this topic made it necessary for us to look not only in education, but also in other fields such as health care, economics, business, and marketing.

Our reviewing of more than 600 articles that addressed, in some way, the question of “sustaining change” confirmed two of our assumptions: that there is no shared understanding of what “sustaining change” means, which is a critical barrier to accumulating knowledge in this area; and that our center is not alone in its efforts to understand why many innovations, even when proved to be effective, seem to vanish.

There are no simple answers, and we have identified a number of factors that warrant further rigorous study if the field is to learn how to invest innovation resources wisely. But our findings point to some basic principles reformers should keep in mind:

Don’t invest in making changes last; invest in continuous, lasting change.

Our research suggests that individuals think about sustainability in one of two ways—as establishing practices and programs that last and stay the same, or as establishing practices and programs that last and change. While it is a seeming contradiction, the second perspective should frame our efforts if we want to bring about improvements that endure. In order to last, innovations must themselves adapt and evolve. Thus, in addition to identifying strategies that work now, we need to invest in mechanisms for improving and adapting those strategies so that they will work in the future.

Invest in reforms and strategies designed to adapt.

Reformers often choose interventions because they have been proved to be effective, which is good. But then they make two false assumptions. First, they assume that because reforms have been shown to work, people will actually use them; and second, they believe that when people do use them, maintaining fidelity to the original idea is of the utmost importance. The literature suggests otherwise.

While fidelity of implementation has its place and time, many make the case that adaptation doesn’t reduce effectiveness, but rather increases it. And, from a sustainability perspective, the literature confirms that reforms always adapt or translate as they spread, and that those adaptations are key contributors to endurance. Further, effectiveness is only one of many factors that affect sustainability. Characteristics of the environment, the organization, and the experiences of the user all have an impact, as do other characteristics of the reform itself, such as usability, specificity, and complexity.

Effectiveness is important, but adaptability is key. It may be important to hold a steady course in the short term, but from a sustainability perspective, rather than focusing on making reforms last as they are and leaving adaptations to chance, it is wise to design reforms that support thoughtful, intentional, and informed adaptation.

Every investment should be an investment in learning.

Just as market conditions always shift, so do the circumstances surrounding educational change. This assures that a program put in place today will not likely meet our students’ needs 10 years from now. So in addition to creating mechanisms for improvement and selecting reforms designed to adapt, we need to focus on mechanisms for systematically capturing how, why, and to what extent the changes we know are necessary and inevitable occur in different contexts. We need structures for systematic learning and accumulating knowledge. That will ensure that the investments we make will have a return for more than today’s students; they will contribute to a growing base of knowledge that assures students’ learning in the future.

Increase the tolerance for risk.

Most people have a low tolerance for change and are inclined to adopt and maintain a practice only if it fits comfortably with what they already do. If the fit is too close, however, the change isn’t actually a change. And if the fit is too distant, it won’t even be considered. The challenge, then, is finding the “sweet spot” of change, where the new practice or program doesn’t challenge risk tolerance too much, yet is sufficiently different from current practice to move the change trajectory in a positive direction. Reforms need to make us feel uncomfortable if we are going to bring about changes that will last. Discomfort means we are truly doing something different.

These ideas have been embedded in research for years, but rather than embrace them, reformers have opted for an oversimplified approach to change. Instead of recognizing the many factors that contribute to and inhibit our reforms’ endurance—and trying to understand these factors as a field of study in education—we have assumed that if we identify effective strategies, they will be scaled up and used, even though the literature flatly tells us this is false.

Yes, we must identify our best strategies and use them. But in an extended time horizon, it is not the interventions themselves that we want to last, it is our ability to achieve desired outcomes. And we need to recognize that those two things are not equivalent. The former is rooted in a static model of maintenance, while the latter is based in a resilient model of adaptability and capacity to learn continuously.

As much as we wish we could find the answer to improving education, the fact is that there isn’t an answer. The key to sustaining change must come from our ability to adapt our best knowledge to ever-changing contexts and conditions, and to work together as a field to systematically organize, process, and construct the learning that comes from those adaptations. Then we will leave the educators of the future with more than a collection of “best practices”; we will also leave them with the knowledge of how to make those practices work for the students of the future.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Vanishing Innovation


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