diversity

Why diversity is essential to school innovation

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Jun 10, 2020

Research, build, test, scale. That’s the fundamental recipe for innovation, the one so many hopes for change in education are pinned on. If we can try new ideas, identify what works, and scale it, we’ll move the needle on better and more equitable student outcomes.

One place where the recipe falters, however, is when the ideas that show promise through the testing phase start to normalize what solutions should look like. What happens then is that emerging ideas on the margins get ignored because they don’t “fit” into the norm. Case in point: I’ve heard leaders of color reflect on how they get passed up for funding because their proposals don’t align with the ideas du jour in school reform.

This same normalizing effect impacts which schools get recognition and support for innovation. As a new idea or approach emerges, a small handful of early-stage innovators shape it and demonstrate its potential. As their reputation grows, these schools are increasingly presumed to represent the gold standard in innovation. Informed primarily through word of mouth, many funders, researchers, and thought leaders turn to these popular schools time and again for innovation cues, creating an echo chamber effect whereby the well-known examples remain the most often cited. This results in a narrow view and fixed mental model of what innovation looks like. It makes it difficult for new models to surface, and often forces schools to align with prevailing trends to get funding and recognition.

But if the prevailing trends are promising, why is it so important to break out of the echo chamber and highlight innovations coming from a broader variety of schools? Because what works for some doesn’t work for all, and what’s working for those on the margins could be completely unknown. 

What works for some won’t work for all

Just a few years ago, a fresh body of research showing the importance of character and “grit” gained wide recognition, bordering on mania, in the education space. Funders announced new investments in measuring grit, and educators called for schools to prioritize teaching it. At the same time, a contrasting message began to surface. In the aptly-named Journal of Education Controversy, a Stanford researcher traced the long history of grit, concluding that grit may not be a relevant concept for low-income students, and that it risks romanticizing hardship. Educators have expressed particular concern about emphasizing grit for Black students, implying that they need more resilience to survive in a racist system rather than locating the problem in the system itself. It turns out that grit is no silver bullet, and teaching it responsibly is a complex task (as this SRI report shows).

This doesn’t mean there’s no place for teaching grit in education. But when an idea or approach makes a big splash, it can come to be seen as universally applicable when, in fact, it has greater relevance and potential impact for students in some contexts than in others. 

Instead of assuming that ideas that have made it to the national consciousness must be widely applicable, we would be better off recognizing that whom innovative models are designed to serve matters. 

What works for others might be under the radar

Education in America has a long history of being designed by and for those in power. If new, high-profile models arise from a slim sampling of schools, we must take a hard look at the models we’re propping up, and evaluate their effectiveness with specific student circumstances in mind. If we don’t expand our aperture, we run the risk of calcifying a paradigm of innovation that may not be designed—and thus may not reliably produce results—for students in a wider variety of circumstances, particularly those whom our system has historically underserved and harmed. In the worst case, an innovative approach showing promise in the context for which it was designed could actually perpetuate harm and widen inequalities when brought to scale.

Leaders betting on innovation as a road to equity should be mindful of learning from a wide range of school models, especially those designed for and by communities whose voices and leadership have been pushed to the margins. The National Charter Collaborative, for example, has built its central mission around identifying single-site charter school leaders of color and supporting them to work towards educational visions that are responsive to the communities they serve. Programs like these help create an expanded portfolio of approaches making an impact in these diverse circumstances, rather than promoting fixed definitions of what an innovative model should be.

Along with many of our colleagues, the Christensen Institute is convinced that there are promising practices and school models out there that are not being surfaced and recognized, either because word hasn’t spread about them, or because their approaches don’t fit easily into existing mental models of what’s innovative. By seeking to create a more inclusive picture of school innovation nationwide, researchers and funders can better support and scale innovations that arise in a variety of contexts, especially those that respond to the needs and priorities of the most marginalized students. 

To learn more about the work we’re undertaking in this area, check out the Canopy project, a crowdsourcing effort to surface a more diverse set of innovative schools pursuing student-centered learning.

Chelsea is a research fellow at the Institute focusing on blended and personalized learning in K-12 education, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the design of new instructional models.