It’s All One in the Same

September 7, 2016
Riley Johnson

Riley Johnson

Innovation is a tricky animal by itself. Add education to the mix, and it gets even crazier.  You can find a slew of opinions and ideas around innovation in education.  I have seen hundreds of examples of amazing innovative school settings and practices; I’m even blessed to work in a real transformative school in New Tech High.  However, we must take a step back and really think about what is stopping systemic change from occurring. A lot of times we get stuck in the sameness of repackaging what we now or think we can do.  Here are a few barriers to systemic innovation:


School as School

One of the toughest parts of true innovation in education is school itself.  Many humans love to learn, but hate the idea of school.  The concept of school is to promote and foster this love in a purposeful manner, but many times it can get lost in conformity and hoops.  There is some great thoughts out there about “deschooling” education. Mindshift has a great article from my friend, Adam Holman, titled “How ‘Deprogramming’ Kids From How to ‘Do School’ Could Improve Learning“.  In the article, Adam shares a revealing comment from a student, “For the first time in my life I am trying to learn everything instead of just get a 70 [percent]”.  That is powerful and the hurdle from not seeing school as something that is done to us or a building we go to must shift for change to happen.

The Accountability Animal

We must ask ourselves always, “what does it mean to be accountable, what are we accountable for and who are we accountable to?”  We know that the fear of accountability can cripple innovation in education.  Both schools and educators alike are forced to constantly think about performance and meeting standards set out for them. But should this stop shifting the way we think about education?  We all know amazing examples of public schools and teachers that are both highly innovative AND perform well on accountability measures.  We also must admit, that we know, accountability is always a moving target.  And maybe that isn’t quite so bad.

Accountability can easily become a scapegoat in stopping innovative practices from spreading.  Teachers feel so tied to meet the standards in front of them or schools feel like they must do everything they can to focus on improving state testing metrics.  Factors such as tenure and seniority can also play a devious role in teachers outlook on implementing innovative teaching practices.


However, data shows, that even the teachers that fail to meet these “accountability” measures rarely get dismissed.  The National Center for Education Statistics have released numbers that show less than 2% of tenured teachers get dismissed for performance.  As well, the American Enterprise Institute looked at teacher dismissal in New York.  They found that from 1997 to 2007, only 12 New York City teachers were let go for incompetent teaching.

The point is that accountability is important.  But vary rarely will your school get shutdown or will a teacher get fired.  So why not try something new and outside the box?

Answering to Higher Ed

This might be my favorite one.  Still being relatively fresh to California, I was puzzled by the A-G requirements from the University of California for high schoolers.  Now I know in a state the size of California, it is important to have some metrics in place for what high school students need, but I was blown away by the influence it has over what happens in high schools.

As well as this, I recently overheard a conversation from one of my high school students about a college class they were taking.  The professor had stated to the whole class that, “high school students should be worried”, “he didn’t understand why they were allowed to take his class anyways”, and “they would probably fail because high school is easy and college is hard”.  It was hard for me to not chime in, but I wanted to find him and ask him who anointed him the gatekeeper of all education.

The point is, these are just two small examples of how high school must answer to higher education.  Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that on average 30% of students that enroll at 4-year institutions don’t finish…at ANY institution.  Whether it be the SAT & ACT or even perceived elitism, higher education has a stranglehold on what happens in high school, many times without the accountability measures listed previously.  Preparing students for college is a vital component of a high school’s role; sometimes I just wonder why the institutes of higher ed have so much influence on us and it seems like the many innovative high schools out there have so little influence on their practices.

full_time_part_time.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeLimits of Humans

Lastly, being human is tough.  The energy, empathy, collaboration, and time necessary to be innovative can be draining.  Hell doing a crappy job can be even more draining!  We must recognize that as humans, we put many limits on ourselves.  We are confined to the practices we know, restricted to our opinions and beliefs, and resistant to change.  As we look at innovation in education, many times it is all just one in the same.  Taking the same box and painting it a different color, moving from a 7 period day to a 6 period day, or using the same ole sustained silent reading everyday are just part of those limits.

HOWEVER, we have seen and will continue to see we are capable of so much more.  When we remove the barriers to entry, we are able to see clearly and re-imagine the role that schools and education play in our communities.  In my next post, I will explore some potential avenues in which I believe innovation can help us re-imagine education, not just repackage it.  I am not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I am saying lets not get stuck in this “it’s just all one in the same” and really think about what can be next for school, teaching, and learning.

Read more from Riley at Project-Based Life.

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