Guest post: What is Innovation; Why do we need to Innovate?

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This week, our guest blog is written by Robert Wedl. Bob served as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education in the late 1990’s leading Minnesota’s innovative standards and measurement initiatives, electronic data collection systems and new finance models including having revenue following students to the sites they attend. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s while serving as deputy commissioner of education, he was a leader in the development of much of Minnesota’s choice policy including open enrollment, post-secondary enrollment options, “second chance” programs and the nation’s first charter school law. He was an administrator in North Branch and Minneapolis and was the first Education Director of the Minnesota Reading Corps. Bob taught at the University of Minnesota, St. Thomas and Concordia and is a Senior Fellow with Education Evolving.  

What is Innovation; Why do we need to Innovate?

By Robert Wedl

I am delighted to be writing this column for the EdVisions blog.  Thanks Dr. Snyder for this wonderful opportunity.  The focus of my column will be on innovation and the redesign of education.   That will include the need to redesign the mission of education.  Our current system was based on the needs of the 20th century when a high school diploma was, for many, a terminal degree.  

Educators like to think of ourselves as being innovative, but actually education, like most organizations in both the public and private sector, is quite cautious about doing things much differently.  And with good reason.  We are dealing with children and youth.   When educators think of ourselves as “innovators” the focus is likely on “improving what is now.”  That actually isn’t innovation.  Innovation is new and different.  Innovators are actually often laughed at.  “Get a horse” was a common jeer at the onset of the automobile.   Peers frequently pressure colleagues into conforming if they stray too far from the status quo.  Wanting to do things differently somehow is interpreted as being critical of the current practice.  But education simply must research and redesign new models of schooling, new curriculum designs, new ways to lead and manage, new governance models, new financing strategies and clearly new evaluation and accountability models.  Each of these will meet with resistance as is always the case when real change is discussed.  “Well that won’t work with everyone” or “MDE or the feds will never let us do that” or “We need to study that more” is intended to stifle the redesign discussion.

Let’s look at what I believe “innovation” is and also what it isn’t.  Look at education through various lenses.  First is “evidence-based.”  For something to be “evidence-based” it requires support with hard research with an adequate sample size and also control groups or at least a matched sample.  Before becoming an “evidence-based practice” the practice may well have been an innovation.  Clearly project-based learning was as were PSEO, early literacy models, MTSS and PBIS.  Education actually does not have many strong “evidence-based” practices.  Second is “research-based” and education does have a plethora of research-based practices.  But the “research-based” bar is not a rigorous standard.  Most everything in the curriculum sales catalogue says it is “research-based and tied to standards.”  That doesn’t say very much.  Third is “promising practice.”  These are strategies that teachers use and find to be effective but there are no organized studies or data behind the practices other than teacher-judgement which clearly is of value.  Innovation is a fourth category.  Because innovation is new and different, it does not have an evidence or research base. New things don’t.  But that by no means suggests that innovation is an “off the top of my head” idea.  Rather, innovation must be carefully designed and be based on a sound hypothesis which will be tested using rigorous research practices.

In Ted Kolderie’s latest book titled, The Split Screen Strategy: How to Turn Education into a Self-Improving System, Kolderie speaks to continuous improvement and redesign as the “split screen strategy.” Kolderie suggests that we cannot do one or the other.  Rather, we must do both.  That is how the system gets improved.  Until recently, the chartered sector of public education was the research and innovation sector.  Project-based learning, teacher-powered schools, age three to grade 3 schools, career academies, new governance designs where teachers held the board majority, use of direct instruction, etc.  But in the past several years, the district sector is beginning to move more rapidly toward a reform agenda as well and state legislatures and the federal government are slowly giving permission to both improve what is as we also research redesign.     

The Minnesota Legislature enacted the “Innovation Zone (IZ)” law in the last session.  I preferred a bolder bill, but the legislature likely went as far as they could.  MDE recently sent out the application for organizations to join the IZ.  EdVisions and Education Evolving are willing to meet with organizations that have redesign in their vision.


“The 2017 Legislature enacted Innovation Research Zone Pilot project legislation that provides districts and charter schools an opportunity to test new ideas in K-12 education. An application may be submitted by one or more school districts or charter schools that together to form an innovation zone partnership. The partnership may include other non-school partners, including postsecondary institutions, other units of local government, nonprofit organizations and for-profit organizations. Applicants are encouraged to think beyond continuous improvement of existing practices to try out and measure the success of innovative practices. Pilot projects must research and implement innovation education programs and models that are based on proposed hypotheses. The Innovation Zone plan may include an emerging practice not yet supported by peer-reviewed research”  (Source: