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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

School & District Management Opinion

What Teach to One Has to Teach About Education’s Innovation Problem

By Rick Hess — October 21, 2019 5 min read

Education is filled with talk of “innovation.” The term gets indiscriminately attached to whatever school model, professional-development strategy, or community program is being pushed at the moment. This endless search for the new new thing tends to squeeze out attention to the more practical dimensions of “educational innovation"—such as why sensible efforts to solve important problems so often struggle to gain traction.

For instance, why do districts buy loads of new tech and shuffle from one new curriculum or training model to another, even as promising efforts to rethink problematic practices languish? Why do sensible initiatives to rethink the “grammar of schooling” struggle to take hold? For the classic exploration of this, of course, one could revisit the iconic work of David Tyack and Larry Cuban. But for those seeking a practical look at all this circa 2019, New Classrooms CEO Joel Rose has penned an invaluable new essay. Rose offers a firsthand exploration of the forces that make it tough for district leaders to engage with programs that would fundamentally alter the way schools work, even when such a change is needed.

Rose’s insights about these forces come from his conversations and experiences with district leaders considering New Classroom’s own “Teach to One: Math.” Teach to One is a learning model that enables teachers to deliver each student a personalized curriculum—fueled by an initial diagnostic test and daily exit-ticket exercises, and incorporating teacher-driven, peer-to-peer, and individual learning. Rose contends that Teach to One ultimately challenges the “implicit assumption” that “all same-age students should be learning the same grade-level material each year.” Given all that, why has Rose found it so frustrating to get districts to adopt Teach to One? In addressing that question, Rose’s paper speaks to larger problems with education’s approach to innovation.

A rigid, grade-level-based accountability system. Rose observes that assessments based on strict grade-level distinctions reduce the appetites for anything that doesn’t fit neatly in a grade-level box, even when those alternatives have been shown to have real promise (as in the case of Teach to One). Teach to One helps lagging students rapidly make up ground, but many of those gains are focused on regaining ground in previous grades—which means those gains don’t show up on state tests which narrowly focus on grade-level standards. (The same issue plagues instruction designed for students who are well ahead of grade-level expectations.) Two decades of state accountability have taught districts to focus policy and practice on state reading and math assessments, shriveling the appetite for programs and interventions that don’t move those scores. Rose recounts that one district leader told him that she could not move forward with Teach to One because she “had to attest to the state that each student was taught all the grade-level skills during the school year.”

Bureaucratic inertia. Efforts to sell unconventional programs and models have to contend with deep-set routines and bureaucratic inertia. The interlocking elements of a school district—including everything from curriculum to hiring to professional development to tech support—can leave districts reluctant to consider the kinds of fundamental changes required by learning models like Teach to One. Rose has also found that in many districts, someone will be skeptical of any initiative intended to fundamentally alter the way things are done. He recounts one Teach to One pitch meeting with leaders of a large school district that came to an abrupt end when the district’s director of math curriculum declared, “I believe all students should do the same thing on the same day, no matter where they are.” As Rose puts it, “The room fell silent, and the meeting soon ended.” As readers know, I’m the first guy to sympathize with educators tired of playing reform musical chairs—but there’s a difference between skepticism and inertia and a need for skepticism to be joined with a fierce commitment to exploring smart solutions.

District procurement processes. Rose gets especially wonky, but also especially useful, when he talks about how district procurement processes can wind up stymieing unfamiliar learning models. Rose points to the example of textbook procurement, noting that 42 states have legislative provisions that require that textbooks be provided for all students at no cost. While Rose concedes that these provisions may have once made sense, he argues that today they essentially codify the notion “that grade-level textbooks . . . shall serve as the primary ‘technology’ that teachers use in classrooms.” In short, current procurement processes make it immensely difficult for districts to purchase anything different from what they usually purchase. And, as Rose points out, “‘innovative learning models’ usually aren’t one of the line items to check off when planning a school budget.”

What can be done about all this? For one thing, Rose recommends creating space in accountability systems for innovative learning models that don’t closely align with traditional grade-level divisions. In his words, “Just as successful organizations create space for new products and ideas that can serve as a basis for long term success, assessment and accountability policies must also leave room to responsibly explore future iterations.” To combat bureaucratic inertia, he urges that states identify and financially support early adopters of innovative learning models. By piloting learning models at volunteer schools, states could collect performance data, thus allowing districts to more equally gauge the promise of these new models. Rose also calls on superintendents to give chief innovation officers more authority to implement new pilots—observing that, currently, “In our experience, organizational turf wars between chief innovation officers and chief academic or school officers are more often won by the latter.”

I’m no fan of education’s endless hunt for the new new thing. But I’m a huge fan of educators, parents, communities, and problems-solvers figuring out how to improve teaching and learning. Having watched Teach to One evolve and grow over the past decade or more, I think it has a lot of promise on this score. And I think Joel Rose’s reflections have much to teach about why educational innovation has so often been a punchline, and what it might take for things to change.

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