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The Trouble with 'Innovation' in Schools

The "new reformers" have appropriated the term "innovation" as a descriptor for policy proposals and practices they advocate, and as an antonym for almost anything else.
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I was sitting among a large crowd of students and teachers at the Chicago Public Schools Video Fair. It was 1998 -- four years before No Child Left Behind was signed into law, but already three years into Chicago's own march toward test-driven "accountability."

I listened as a high-level district administrator stepped to the podium to congratulate a group of my seventh graders on winning the festival's top prize. Their video, which they'd made in my media studies class, was a portrayal of how racist attitudes are passed on from adults to children.

I don't recall all of the administrator's words, but I remember her commending the students, recognizing our school's media studies program, and ending with, "I'm sure participating in this program is really raising the students' reading scores!"

Applause followed, but I left feeling deflated. I believed the media studies course was beneficial for many of our school's seventh and eighth graders. At its best, it gave them space to voice their opinions on issues, to become more critical consumers of media messages, and, broadly speaking, to become more literate. Maybe even more importantly, it provided an outlet for the kids to express themselves creatively.

But none of that seemed to matter much when held up against the new priorities. It became clear to me that afternoon that we'd taken a few more steps down a perilous, narrow path in Chicago. We'd reached a place where the value of any classroom project or school program would ultimately be judged by whether it boosted reading or math scores on the yearly standardized tests.

Flash forward 13 years and many miles down that same path. Both the media studies class at my former school and the CPS Video Fair are long gone and buried. Their demise reflects what many of the teachers in my current graduate classes -- especially those in city schools that serve poor students -- describe as their daily reality: more top-down control of what is taught (and at what pace), less support for teacher and student creativity, less time for the arts and other non-tested subjects, and a laser-like focus on moving scores higher.

An irony in all this is that one of the favored words of the business-minded reformers who continue to push a results-driven, corporate model of school change is "innovation". Of all the buzzwords that zip through current conversations about school improvement, it may be the most repeated. It peppers the language of Race to the Top, of charter school cheerleading, of teacher recruitment pitches -- if you're not talking about innovating, you're probably not getting heard.

But the word, like so many others in education, has been hijacked. The "new reformers" have appropriated it as a descriptor for policy proposals and practices they advocate, and as an antonym for almost anything else. Charter schools? Innovative. Regular public schools? Definitely not. Competing for education funding? Innovative. Assuring that adequate monies go to schools that most need them? Passé. Evaluating teachers based on test scores? Innovative. Collective bargaining? Old school.

Corporate reformers have come to own the word so completely that they're able to promote even the most wrongheaded ideas and still be portrayed by many media outlets as innovators. Bill Gates says we should crowd more students into the classrooms of the "top 25 percent of teachers" in order to save money. Does any school-based educator believe that that's a good idea? The film Waiting for Superman, a favorite of the innovation crowd, puts forth an image of student learning that is as ill-conceived as it is crude: the empty-vessel head of a cartoon student is opened up and a pile of information is poured in. It's all about efficiency -- more head-filling, less fact-spilling. But hey, that's innovation!

Since many of the practices, values, and terminology ("Are you tracking me?") of the new reformers have been borrowed from the business world, it's also important to remember that what corporate CEOs celebrate as innovative isn't necessarily fair or just. Bob Herbert's final column for the New York Times two weeks ago lamented the growing wealth gap in the U.S., and highlighted the fact that General Electric, which racked up $14.2 billion in profits in 2010, paid zero federal taxes. With so many families struggling to make ends meet, how can this be? According to the Times' own reporting, G.E. implements "an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting (italics mine) that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore."

I'm all for fresh ideas, but just because a notion is novel or different doesn't mean it's good for teachers and kids. The trouble with many of the current "innovations" in education is that they do nothing to challenge a broader policy framework that prizes higher test scores above all else--in fact, they often embrace it. So teacher and student creativity will continue to be squashed at every turn. And the poorer the kids are in a given classroom or school, the more likely that is to be true.

That, for me, is the most troubling aspect of where we appear to be headed. The Obama and Duncan plan for reauthorizing NCLB would allow most schools to escape the pressure cooker of AYP-chasing that has marked the past decade, and that's a good thing. But for the 10 percent of schools at the bottom of the test-score pile -- mostly schools of the urban poor -- the heat would be turned up even higher: more testing, more "data-driven" instruction, and more sanctions, while creativity, divergent thinking, and the arts continue to get left behind.

I think about the seventh and eighth graders I taught in Chicago -- kids like Ramon, who daydreamed in poetic verse but had a hard time sitting still, or Josefina, a recent immigrant who struggled with English but found her voice when a video camera was in her hands. What place is there for kids like them in the schools we've made? How will they discover their gifts, pursue their dreams? And if they become alienated by their schooling experiences -- which seems likely -- where will they turn?

It depends on who you ask, I suppose. Michelle Rhee, former DC schools chancellor and one of the rock-star "innovators" in education, famously told Time magazine in 2008:

"The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely. People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning.' I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

On the other hand, Sir Ken Robinson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and author of Out of Our Minds, argues in two widely-circulated talks from the TED conference that schools too often end up stifling kids' creative spirits. "Creativity is as important in education as literacy," Robinson says, "and we should treat it with the same status."

We should -- but with the continued reliance on annual testing in Obama's and Duncan's blueprint for change, it may not happen anytime soon. That means too many kids in our poorest neighborhoods will continue, even if their test scores rise, to receive what can only be called an impoverished education. And no matter what the new reformers say, there's nothing innovative about that.

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