When I was in high school, I had an after-school job at a small electronics company that made and sold equipment, mostly to the U.S. Navy. My job was to work with another high school student and our foreman to pack and unpack boxes, do inventories, basically whatever needed doing.
One of our regular tasks was very time-consuming. We had to test solder extractors to be sure they were working. We’d have to heat up each one for several minutes, touch a bit of solder to it, and wipe off any residue.
One day, my fellow high school student and I came up with an idea. We took 20 solder extractors and lined them up on a work table with 20 electrical outlets. We then plugged them in. By the time we’d plugged in #20, #1 was hot, so we could go back and test it, then #2, and so on. An hour-long job was reduced to 10 minutes. We were being paid the princely sum of $1.40 an hour, so we were saving the company big bucks. Our foreman immediately saw the advantages, and he told the main office about our idea.
Up in the main office, far from the warehouse, was a mean, mean man. He wore a permanent scowl. He had a car with mean, mean bumper stickers. I’ll call him Mr. Meanie.
Mr. Meanie hated everyone, but he especially hated the goofy, college-bound high school students in the warehouse. So he had to come see what we were doing, probably to prove that it was dumb idea.
Mr. Meanie came and asked me to show him the solder extractors. I laid them out, same as always, and everything worked, same as always, but due to my anxiety under Mr. Meanie’s scowl, I let one of the cords touch its neighboring solder extractor. It was ruined.
Mr. Meanie looked satisfied (probably thinking, “I knew it was a dumb idea”), and left without a word. But as long as I worked at the company, we never again tested solder extractors one at a time (and never scorched another cord). My guess is that long after we were gone, our method remained in use despite Mr. Meanie. We’d overcome him with evidence that no one could dispute.
In education, we employ some of the smartest and most capable people anywhere as teachers. Teachers innovate, and many of their innovations undoubtedly improve their own students’ outcomes. Yet because most teachers work alone, their innovations rarely spread or stick even within their own schools. When I was a special education teacher long ago, I made up and tested out many innovations for my very diverse, very disabled students. Before heading off for graduate school, I wrote them out in detail for whoever was going to receive my students the following year. Perhaps their next teachers received and paid attention to my notes, but probably not, and they could not have had much impact for very long. More broadly, there is just no mechanism for identifying and testing out teachers’ innovations and then disseminating them to others, so they have little impact beyond the teacher and perhaps his or her colleagues and student teachers, at best.
One place in the education firmament where teacher-level innovation is encouraged, noted, and routinely disseminated is in comprehensive schoolwide approaches, such as our own Success for All (SFA). Because SFA has its own definite structure and materials, promising innovations in any school or classroom may immediately apply to the roughly 1000 schools we work with across the U.S. Because SFA schools have facilitators within each school and coaches from the Success for All Foundation who regularly visit in teachers’ classes, there are many opportunities for teachers to propose innovations and show them off. Those that seem most promising may be incorporated in the national SFA program, or at least mentioned as alternatives in ongoing coaching.
As one small example, SFA constantly has students take turns reading to each other. There used to be arguments and confusion about who goes first. A teacher in Washington, DC noticed this and invented a solution. She appointed one student in each dyad to be a “peanut butter” and the other to be a “jelly.” Then she’d say, “Today, let’s start with the jellies,” and the students started right away without confusion or argument. Now, 1000 schools use this method.
A University of Michigan professor, Don Peurach, studied this very aspect of Success for All and wrote a book about it, called Seeing Complexity in Public Education (Oxford University Press, 2011). He visited dozens of SFA schools, SFA conferences, and professional development sessions, and interviewed hundreds of participants. What he described is an enterprise engaged in sharing evidence-proven practices with schools and at the same time learning from innovations and problem solutions devised in schools and communicating best practices back out to the whole network.
I’m sure that other school improvement networks do the same, because it just makes sense. If you have a school network with common values, goals, approaches, and techniques, how does it keep getting better over time if it does not learn from those who are on the front lines? I’d expect that such very diverse networks as Montessori and Waldorf schools, KIPP and Success Academy, and School Development Program and Expeditionary Learning schools, must do the same. Each of the improvements and innovations contributed by teachers or principals may not be big enough to move the needle on achievement outcomes by themselves, but collectively they keep programs moving forward as learning organizations, solving problems and improving outcomes.
In education, we have to overcome our share of Mr. Meanies trying to keep us from innovating or evaluating promising approaches. Yet we can overcome blockers and doubters if we work together to progressively improve proven programs. We can overwhelm the Mr. Meanies with evidence that no one can dispute.
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.