In the next few years, NASA will launch its next great telescope. Much larger than the rocket required to launch it into space, this enormous telescope has been creatively developed to initially fold-up and to then expand once it is released from the rocket. At an expense of $6.8 billion, this innovation will show scientists pictures of space not previously seen.
Imagine the value and return on investment of instead applying that same degree of innovation and financial commitment to advancements in educating our children. Despite dramatic social and technological changes in our society over the past seven decades, little has changed in the fundamental substance of classroom instruction. The academic tasks and interactions among teachers, students and content remain remarkably unchanged.
An illustration of this stagnation is demonstrated in comments from a recent state board of education meeting, where a member of the board called a proposed adaptive testing approach “the biggest change we’ve seen in public education in the last decade.” What’s so discouraging about this is the accuracy of the statement: adaptive testing, a technology that’s been in use for 15 years in higher education, may indeed be the biggest change we’ve seen in public schools; yet it is neither new nor innovative.
And the idling is not limited to our K-12 public schools. Our colleges and universities, despite the focus on research and development within their specific fields of study, ironically have not applied that same rigor of analysis toward changing and improving their education delivery methods.
Our recent economic climate has forced businesses to innovate and improve efficiency. But our higher education institutions have simply raised tuition to account for reduced state funding. All the while, entrenched faculty insist that the way they have always run their degree programs and taught their classes is the only way to do so. This ensures that no substantive innovations change the way our colleges operate. What’s more, our higher education faculty and leaders wonder out loud why so many qualified students today are bypassing traditional college.
Only through engagement in and application of innovative ideas will we identify new and more effective ways to educate our children. As Harvard professor and author Clayton Christensen highlights, these changes must challenge our conceptions of and comfort with the existing structure of teaching and learning. It is precisely at these intersections where innovative improvements will occur. We must embrace the disruptions and learn from them.
This innovation will not happen without courage and commitment from all involved.
The charter school movement has illustrated the improvements that can occur when opportunities are opened up for creative thinking within the restructuring of schooling. While some charters have resulted in disappointing student achievement and other even more embarrassing maladies, the movement as a whole has created the space for ideas that have resulted in meaningful improvements in teaching and learning. As noted by Richard Rothstein, the policy question that charter schools raise is one of our tolerance for innovation: “[is] the underperformance of some charter schools a price worth paying for the high performance of others?”
The answer is a resounding yes. In order to truly innovate we must try and fail. Challenging the existing structures of schooling — which have persisted for decades — will require courage from educators, leaders, and parents.
The necessary innovation will necessitate those from within to acknowledge the need for change. It will require educators to listen to and learn from the perspectives of those who have successfully applied change in other sectors. And it will require business people, parents and elected officials to listen to and learn from the perspectives of experienced educators who are earnestly trying to make improvements.
Innovation will also entail accurate and ongoing assessments to ensure we are tracking the impact on student learning that changes are having. And we must institute the flexibility to recalibrate as we discover what works and what doesn’t. Improvements will take time and will require investment. However, the benefits of such innovation for the long-term viability of our children, our culture and our economy are exponential.
This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Deseret News.