Innovation Step by Step

Here’s an astonishing statistic. Apparently, dairy cows today each produce six times as much milk as they did in 1950. Consumption of dairy products per person is about the same as it was then, so if milk per cow were the same as in 1950, we’d need six times as many cows per person; vastly greater acreage and other resources would be needed. The same pattern is true for almost any area of agriculture.

Yet do you recall any breakthroughs in agriculture in the past 60 years? I don’t. Instead, the steady gains in agricultural productivity are due to hundreds or thousands of small advances. In the case of dairy cows, it’s advances in breeding, feed, veterinary care, milking technology, and so on.

In education, we often act as though we’re waiting for breakthroughs: New technologies, new assessments, radically new teaching methods, and so on. When breakthroughs do not materialize, we lose faith in research and development as a path to reform.

Yet in medicine, technology, agriculture, and other fields that base progress on evidence, progress is constant and cumulative. Breakthroughs may take place, but more often it’s small, step-by-step improvements with evidence of effectiveness that move the field forward. When education finally embraces R&D as a basis for adoption of innovation, progress in each subject and grade level will probably also be steady rather than remarkable. Programs and practices found to make a modest but meaningful difference in student learning outcomes will accumulate over time, as took place in dairy farming and so many other fields that have seen substantial progress over the years.

As my colleague Jon Baron recently wrote in a New York Times article, “Scientifically rigorous studies – particularly, the “gold standard” of randomized controlled trials – are a mainstay of medicine, providing conclusive evidence of effectiveness for most major medical advances in recent history. In social spending, by contrast, such studies have only a toehold. Where they have been used, however, they have demonstrated the same ability to produce important, credible evidence about what works – and illuminated a path to major progress.”

Precisely because genuine progress in educational programs and practice is likely to be gradual, it is especially critical that support for the R&D process be sustained and steady over time, since exciting headlines will be rare. If someone comes up with a “smart pill” or a new technology that doubles learning rates, all the better; the same R&D process that supports evolutionary change could also produce revolutionary change. But don’t count on it.

Let’s be clear. Reading scores in the U. S. have been virtually unchanged since 1980. Achievement gaps by social class and race have been about the same for 30 years. We should be outraged by this, but we need to turn that outrage into a commitment both to use the proven programs and practices available now and to engage in research and development that leads over time to truly transformative innovation.

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Transforming Low-Performing Schools

One of the most serious problems in American education is the persistently low-achieving school, one that despite substantial attention and efforts over the years fails to make significant progress on test scores and other indicators. My colleague Robert Balfanz calls high schools like this “dropout factories,” but there are persistently low-achieving elementary and middle schools as well.

For many years, localities, states, and the federal government have tried a variety of carrots and sticks to try to improve these schools. Most recently, persistently low-achieving schools have been eligible for substantial School Improvement Grants (SIG), but to get them they have to choose among four draconian alternatives, including school closure, turning the school over to a charter operator, or replacing the principal and at least half of the staff. Most SIG schools choose a “transformation” alternative in which the principal is replaced and the school receives extensive professional development. Yet a recent analysis of SIG data from the U.S. Department of Education shows success is spotty and elusive for these schools, especially considering the billions of dollars spent on them.

Designing replicable “transformation” programs to help persistently low-achieving schools would seem to be essential, yet it has not happened. A few years ago, the Institute for Education Sciences put out a request for applications to create and evaluate whole-school designs for turning around persistently low-achieving schools, but inexplicably, they did not fund any of the proposals they got and never issued another RFA on the topic. Whole-school reform models developed and evaluated in the 1990s are almost all gone, due to opposition by the Bush administration. Some of these had excellent evidence of effectiveness, but this did not matter. These models were not even mentioned in an IES-produced practice guide on turnaround programs, for example. As a result, schools now receiving SIG funding are mostly making up their own strategies, often with the help of consultants. Some of these home-grown strategies may work, but we won’t know which ones, or why.

The recent funding of Investing in Innovation (i3) might offer a model for identifying and expanding school turnaround practices. Some of the i3 funded programs that have already been proven effective were designed as transformation or turnaround models, especially our own Success for All model and our colleagues’ Diplomas Now high school program. Despite their considerable evidence of effectiveness, neither of these are used in many SIG schools. Existing proven models, whether or not they are funded by i3, certainly need to be used in turnarounds. Yet more proven programs are needed. The Department of Education should set aside funds for fast-track development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven transformation models, patterned on i3 but restricted to turnaround strategies. This problem is far too important for there to be so few proven programs available for these desperate schools to use.

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NOTE: Robert Slavin is co-founder of the Success for All Foundation, a recipient of i3 grants.