Three Factors Stifling Innovation in k-12 Public Education

By Robert J. Harris

April 12, 2017

Given the socio-cultural forces, and technological and economic factors that are rapidly changing the education landscape, today more than ever, the capacity for schools to innovate is a key success factor in k-12 education. There are numerous reasons why today’s k-12 public schools are not fountains of innovation. Government regulation is usually on the top of the list because it drives a culture of compliance within schools. However, at a more fundamental level, there are three factors that stifle innovation that are not often talked about in education circles:

Generally speaking, teachers are rule followers. Having spent their entire lives in classrooms following the rules as elementary, middle, high school and college students; from the time teachers receive their first classroom assignment, they are also expected to establish their own classroom rules, teach those rules, and enforce them. The perpetuation of and over-reliance on rule following, rule-making and rule enforcement in k-12 education has not resulted in creating a culture of innovation in public schools.

School Superintendents want to keep their jobs. The typical ‘shelf-life’ of a school superintendent is approximately three years. By doing a reasonably good job complying with state mandates and otherwise maintaining the status quo (in other words the ‘do no harm standard’), after three years, a superintendent usually finds a job in another community earning even more money. Re-cycling the same pool of superintendents, without expanding opportunities for other qualified school or business leaders to take on school leadership roles, makes the possibility of innovation even more remote.

Scarcity of resources. Although k-12 public schools have been recognized as ‘the marketplace for new ideas,’ given today’s funding formulae, most local school boards are not willing to take risks on innovative practices with taxpayer dollars. It is uncommon, if not a rare, to see a line-item in publicly funded school budget ear-marked for innovation. Instead, innovation is infrequent, in pockets, and is sponsored by only a few fearless educators. If local school boards do not fund innovation, a culture of systemic innovation in public schools will continue to succumb to the status quo.

Given the increasing competition public school systems face from rival charter schools locally and rival nations globally, it is time for school leaders and policy-makers to abandon the status quo and place k-12 school innovation at the forefront of the national agenda.

Robert J. Harris (@edudexterous) is an Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources.


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