What Do We Mean by "Innovation"?

in•no•vate - v. To begin something new: introduce.

in•no•va•tion - n. 1. The act of innovating. 2. Something that is new or unusual.

-- Webster's II

Innovation is the spark of insight that leads a scientist or inventor to investigate an issue or phenomenon. That insight is usually shaped by an observation of what appears to be true or the creative jolt of a new idea. Innovation is driven by a commitment to excellence and continuous improvement. Innovation is based on curiosity, the willingness to take risks, and experimenting to test assumptions. Innovation is based on questioning and challenging the status quo. It is also based on recognizing opportunity and taking advantage of it.

In the world of education, innovation comes in many forms. There are innovations in the way education systems are organized and managed, exemplified by charter schools or school accountability systems. There are innovations in instructional techniques or delivery systems, such as the use of new technologies in the classroom. There are innovations in the way teachers are recruited, and prepared, and compensated. The list goes on and on.

In the Office of Innovation and Improvement, part of our mission is to identify, support and promote innovative practices in education. This presents some challenges. By their very nature, innovations are new and untested. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect that innovations be evidence-based. At the same time, the education field has a long history of promoting fads and nostrums that turned out to be, at the least, ineffectual, and at the worst, harmful to children; we don't want to contribute to that disease either.

So how can we responsibly promote untested, unproven, but innovative practices? And how can we encourage the inventors of innovations to start developing an evidence base so that over time these interventions can be held up to scrutiny and hopefully demonstrate their effectiveness?

First, we practice truth in advertising. The "Innovations of the Week" featured on this web site, for example, are not yet tried and true. They have not yet been subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Most, in fact, are too new to have much of a track record at all. Therefore, educators should implement these innovations at their own risk. We are careful to describe the intervention in an informative and compelling way, while not making claims about its effectiveness.

Second, we make our criteria for "innovative practices" transparent. For example, to be an "innovation of the week," an intervention must:

  1. Address an important challenge in education. In most cases, we publicize innovations that could be helpful to state and local school officials as they implement the No Child Left Behind Act and work to boost student achievement.

  2. At the least, pass through a peer review process focused on the project's design. This can take many forms. It can include peer review panels that are part of grant competitions; all OII grantees therefore have met this requirement. It can include recognition programs that have an adjudication process. It could include interventions that have been funded by private foundations that include peer review in their grant-making process. Oftentimes, these peer reviewers are not asked to determine whether the project has an evidence base, but whether there is reason to believe that it will be successful in the future because of its strong program design. That is our standard as well.

Third, we encourage all OII grantees to put in place rigorous, experimental evaluation designs so that, over time, we can learn if these interventions are effective. While we cannot mandate such evaluations, nor are they always feasible, we have started to provide incentives for grant applicants to embed such studies into their project designs from the beginning. For example, in 2003, we included competitive priorities worth up to 20 "bonus points" in three of our grant competitions: Teaching American History, Advanced Placement Incentives, and Arts Models Development. Many applicants responded enthusiastically, and we now have dozens of grantees that are putting experimental or quasi-experimental evaluations in place. Over time, we hope that more and more OII grantees adopt rigorous evaluations so we can find out if what they are doing really works. If they stand up to scientific scrutiny, then these innovative practices will have evolved into evidence-based practices.

Fourth, we plan to showcase OII grantees that have demonstrated success through rigorous evaluations. As a critical mass of OII grantees develops--those that have put in place experimental or quasi-experimental evaluation designs, and have shown positive impacts on student achievement or other positive outcomes--we will promote these programs aggressively, through publications, web sites, and possibly even videos. A process is currently under development to identify such projects. We may also refer these interventions to the What Works Clearinghouse.

For more information about scientifically based evaluation, see the following links:

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Last Modified: 12/06/2004