It’s innovative, but is it really better?

The word “innovative” is invoked a lot to describe school reform policies that are alleged to be improvements over what existed before. But is innovative inherently better? Arthur H. Camins answers the question in the following post. Camins is the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent Stevens Institute. His other writing can be found at


By Arthur H. Camins

Advocates for change in education like to be called innovative. But therein lies the innovator’s moral dilemma. Are favored innovations better and for whom? For example, a new report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, called “Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective, Educational Research and Innovation” indicated that the “top five innovations in organizational policy and practice” in the United States were, “more use of student assessments for monitoring school progress”; and “more use of assessments for national or district benchmarking.”  Are these innovations better? Evidence alone will not provide an answer because, through the filters of moral superiority, anything counts as evidence. So it is with the supporters of currently ascendant education policies.

(OECD, ‘Measuring Innovation in Education’)

It appears that the battles over what counts as better for education in the United States will be decided, not by the relative strength of evidentiary arguments, but instead by who most successfully claims the moral high ground. Public acceptance of policy prescriptions turns not turn on technical determinations, but on values identification and moral judgments.

Current education policy features high-stakes testing, charter schools, merit pay and diminishment of teachers due process and collective bargaining rights. These strategies rely on unleashing competitive market forces to drive improvement. These are the wrong choices on both evidentiary and moral grounds. Whereas evidentiary critiques are abundant, exposure of foundational moral precepts has received less popular attention. The former are essential, but we need more of the latter.

Supporters argue passionately that competition will strike a blow at what ails education in the United States. The counterpunch of many incredulous opponents, driven by the values of equitable, democratic education, is that these “reformers” are lying about the evidence. After all, how can they ignore evidence that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, restricts classroom creativity, and undermines motivational authentic learning; that attempts to statistically isolate the contribution of individual teachers to growth in student learning are unstable and fraught with inaccuracy; that charter schools increase segregation, while offering no systemic educational benefit; that merit pay has no history of improved instruction or student achievement; that these policies deflect attention from the primary contributor to disparity in student achievement: poverty; that teaching will improve not through hiring, firing and competition, but with sufficient time for extensive collaborative professional development?

They must, it is argued, be lying. Well, some are. They are the hucksters out to make a buck by playing on the hopes and dreams of parents desperate for a high quality education for their children. However, many others are guilty not of intentional lying but rather a colossal failure to scientifically examine how their values and moral biases might distort their perceptions of whether or not evidence supports their claims. In The Uses of Being Wrong, Daniel W. Drezner argues that, “…the goal of social science [research] is falsification. By proving an existing theory wrong, we refine our understanding of what our models can and cannot explain.” However, even the honest supporters of education reform appear to have no compunction about bringing hypothetically impactful educational change strategies to scale with little or no experimental evidence and no obligation to present abundantly available falsification data. They do so because they view the world through filters of moral certitude. Below, I discuss two such filters. The first is a goals filter and the second is a means filter.


The Competitive Advantage Filter

The full spectrum of contributors to inequality enters this filter, but for many reformers only student’s personal motivation and teachers’ individual contributions to the results of standardized tests of measurable achievement are visible on the other side.

What explains this distortion?

Success (defined as beating the competition), reformers appear to reason, is influenced by competitive advantage, which derives from application of fixed capacities (some have it, and some do not) that are motivated by extrinsic reward. As a result, policies focus on hiring and firing able teachers rather than on developing them. “No-excuses” charter schools filter out those who do not fit in or have the “grit” to struggle though. Based on this vision the function of education will continue to be to sort out the best and the brightest for advancement. These ideas have been debunked in research-supported popular books such, as Mindset by Carol Dweck, and Drive by Daniel Pink. This is the old wolf in new sheep’s clothing. However, these beliefs are deeply engrained in American culture and highly resilient to change. Maybe current education reform leaders prefer to explain their own success by such individualist theories rather than examine the ways in which economic and political arrangements in the United States are structured to ensure differential rewards to the few.

Individualism and a failure to consider more equitable socio-economic structures lead reformers to an inequality vision that is extraordinarily constrained. As I argued here and here, reformers’ vision is limited to increasing the chances of some students to escape from poverty. Reformers accept inequality in the United States, with its vast wealth disparity and competition for limited resources and rewards as inevitable, if not motivational, in an unquestionably superior system. Hence, evidence of limited impact of charter schools, their tendency to increase segregation and the apparent folly of firing a few presumably ineffective teachers in order to have systemic impact are not viewed as problematic. Systemic impact was never been the goal. What they envision passing through their filter is improved chances for some motivated children who with a stronger education will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the children stuck in schools that simply cannot be improved. Reform, by this light, just makes the competition fairer. As a result, implementation of favored policies rather than achievement of systemic results are taken as evidence of success.

To be clear, there is not unanimity that vast inequality is an essential feature of our economic and political system. For example, in a recent New York Times opinion piece, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz argued that vast inequality is not inevitable, but rather the result of political choices that create poverty and prevent full spectrum solutions. In another Times column, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman challenged the premise that education is the antidote to poverty.


The Disruptive Innovation Filter

The foundational leadership and organizational change theory supporting current education reform is disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation, championed most famously by Clayton Christianson, is simultaneously an historical theory to explain business survival and prosperity and a prescription for leadership and organizational management. However, it also includes a moral dimension.

From the perspective of disruptive innovation, business failure in the face of radically new products and processes is an inevitable historical force.   Its moral foundation is: Disrupt or be disrupted. In this view, some leaders manage for incremental “sustaining” improvements. They may be effective at small improvement with existing structures, but they are not the agents of real progress. By contrast, disrupters do not manage to please customers’ current inclinations, but “see around corners,” anticipating and creating new customer demands. Supporters of this approach to change claim that disruption rarely happens within institutions organized for stability or incremental improvement, but rather at the margins where innovations are free to develop, fail and eventually gain support– as they in turn become established and are eventually disrupted. In this view, the disruptive impact of instability on people’s lives can be considered an inevitable casualty of historical forces. In business, decisions often require a moral judgment about whether the success of the few is more valuable than the wellbeing of the many. In education, a judgment must be made about whether it is morally acceptable to spend limited funds to create charter schools for some children, while diverting money from remaining schools.

Christianson is not without critics. Most recently, Jill Lepore challenged the theory of disruptive innovations as being historically inaccurate and misapplied in areas beyond business.

“Disrupters,” she wrote, “ridicule doubters by charging them with fogeyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change.” The apostles of disruptive innovation, avoid “ the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.” For example, processed foods and fast food restaurants might be considered highly profitable disruptive innovations. However, from a public health perspective they are destructive. Walmart’s business model is a disruptive innovation, but not especially productive for employees or local small business owners.

As applied to education, disruptors have several implicit, if unexamined assumptions:


  • The digital information revolution and economic globalization have rendered the predominant classroom structures and relationships in our current education system obsolete and fundamentally unsuited to meet the needs of the future. The conclusion is that these structures must be disrupted and replaced.


One interpretation of this premise is that educational quality is a function of personalization and economies of scale for which digital technologies are the keys. Uncritical advocates for increasing the role of digital technology in student learning have given insufficient attention to how, when, with whom and for what such technology is best suited. They have disregarded research on the benefits of small class size, while supporting the firing of large percentages of teachers and closing “underperforming schools” without regard to dislocation in the lives of students.


  • Supporters of current education reform measures appear to regard democracy as merely instrumental– and disposable when it is inconvenient– rather than a core moral value. They regard the democratic process of negotiation and compromise, features of unions and elected school boards, as an impediment to implementation of disruptive innovation. This premise leads it proponents to advocate to undermine unions and replace locally elected school boards with alternative unencumbered entities such as independent, privately-run charter schools.


I have little hope of dissuading these ardent reformers. I do hope that shedding some light on the nature of their ideological filters will influence public perception and undermine the credibility and traction of their policies. I have some hope that employers, who worry about access to a diverse talent pool sufficiently deep and wide to meet their needs, will come to realize the folly of current strategies. I hope that others will object on moral grounds and come to embrace democratic, equitable education policies as part of a broad social and economic justice movement.

Maximizing competitive advantage represents a core value, while disruptive innovation is a moral choice about means, in which moral certainty about achieving goals excuses the collateral damage of getting there. This vision accepts inequality as inevitable, if lamentable. As result, the education system may be disrupted, but as not part of an effort to disrupt the prevailing societal rewards and power arrangements.

An alternative core value is maximizing economic, social and political equity. These values support an effort to alter the current structures to create an equitable society. Such values lead to different moral choices about means, including ensuring a public education system in which:

  • all students are known, valued and respected by adults and peers;
  • all students develop their talents and expertise to be successful in work, life and citizenship; and,
  • policy and decision makers are answerable to the public in order to ensure the common good.

I recognize that this is not what we have now and getting there is not simple. However, it is a morally compelling and inclusive vision. It is a more morally compelling and inclusive vision than being first in the world on international achievement tests or parents having an opportunity to compete with neighbors for their children’s enrollment in a better school.   It gives direction to what we must do and what we must stop doing.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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