OII: Office of Innovation and Improvement
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Does Education Really Need More Innovation in the Age of Scientifically Based Research?
Presentation by Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University, at the Innovations in Education conference
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I am happy to join this discussion on education innovation and to be part of this distinguished group of educators, scholars, and commentators on education.

I was asked to respond to the question of whether education really needs more innovation in this new age of scientifically based research. There is an implication in this question that innovation and science may be somehow mutually exclusive, or at least antagonistic to one another. Let me say then at the outset that I support both innovation and scientifically based research. I am for both of them, and I know the pitfalls of both of them. The only reliable answer to the question "Does Education Really Need More Innovation in the age of scientifically based research?" must be "It depends." It depends on what you mean by "innovation," and it depends on what you mean by "scientifically based research."

Beyond asking whether education needs more innovation, there is yet another question that deserves consideration: Should the federal government support innovation in education? Since we meet here under the auspices of the new Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education, that question seems to have been answered. So the next question must be, how should this agency decide which innovations to support? These are quite different questions from the title of my talk, I think.

Let me begin with a few memories of my own encounters with innovation at the U.S. Department of Education. A bit over a decade ago, I served as Assistant Secretary in charge of the Office of Education Research and Improvement, known as OERI. OERI had a varied portfolio of research and programs, including programs to support innovations. We frequently held grant competitions, and we were always on the lookout for the latest thing, the newest innovation that would set the world of education on fire. In retrospect, it is hard to think of a single innovation that the Department funded during that time that actually made a lasting contribution to the advancement of education.

Because OERI administered a pot of discretionary funds for the Department, we were often burdened with earmarks--that is, an appropriation earmarked by a legislator for a specific school district or institution in his own district. This was known as "bringing home the bacon," or in more familiar parlance, pork. I vividly remember getting an urgent telephone call from the Education Department's office of legislative affairs, letting me know that a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee had added a $1 million earmark to create a Center for Education Innovation at his state university. I thought it was a terrible idea, and so did the Secretary and Deputy Secretary. There was absolutely no evidence that the people involved had any qualifications to run such a center, but the earmark--needless to say--survived. I doubt that anything further was ever again heard from this center on innovation. That experience alerted me not only to the insidiousness of earmarking, which wastes limited federal funds, but also to the ease with which legislators can use lofty rhetoric about "innovation" while practicing old-fashioned pork barrel politics.

One hopes that this new age of scientifically based research will make it possible for the Department of Education to erect reviews based on well-established canons of science or social science as a safeguard against political demands by powerful legislators on behalf of their pork-hungry constituents. And yet, the last time I saw an analysis of the education budget, it seemed that the number of earmarks had grown, not diminished, over the past decade. So beware: Earmarks are a keen way of evading peer reviews and making it unnecessary for a proposal to demonstrate its prospective value or validity.

OERI was responsible for the federal labs and centers, where innovation was a watchword but where most federal money went disproportionately for administration and dissemination rather than fresh ideas that made a mark. The labs, in particular, were supposed to disseminate innovative ideas, but I can't think of any influential innovation in education that came from any of them, unless it was expertise in lobbying for permanent federal funding.

Among my fondest memories of innovations is a grant that was awarded by the Women's Educational Equity Program. This was a program that had been enacted in the early 1970s to supply gender fair materials and textbooks, on the assumption that no commercial publisher was doing so. The purpose of this particular program, which I encountered in my first few weeks in office, was to support gender equality. The basic idea in the proposal was that teachers had to overcome their squeamishness in talking about sex. The grant was premised on the idea that teachers needed to learn how to stand up in front of the classroom and use the same everyday words to describe intimate body parts that their students were accustomed to using, rather than the technical terms found in biology textbooks. I can't recall why this innovative approach was supposed to advance gender equity, but it did get funded.

Perhaps the most prominent effort to promote innovation during my brief stint in the Department of Education was the creation of the New American Schools Development Corporation. This project was specifically geared to jump-starting a new generation of American schools. Millions of dollars of private funding were raised to underwrite a competition for "break-the-mold" ideas about education. About a dozen proposals were eventually funded by NASDC. Most consisted of alliances among well-known school reformers, none of whom was lacking for funding or for a platform. None, to my knowledge, has had a lasting impact on American education nor created a model that has been widely adopted, nor made a mark as a font of truly innovative thinking. The sad story of the meteoric rise and equally meteoric domestication of NASDC has been well documented by Jeffrey Mirel in a paper titled "The Evolution of NASDC," published by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Some of these memories are amusing, especially now that I am so far removed. However, it is not amusing to realize that education history contains many examples of innovations and of education science that in retrospect put egg on the faces of their proponents.

Many failed and forgotten innovations continue to live in schools where they were introduced with great fanfare and subsequently forgotten. I have often heard it said that some schools are like archeological digs; one can dig down and find layer after layer of school reforms and obsolete programs. New ones get added, but old ones do not get subtracted. I have been in schools where the principal pointed proudly to the long list of programs in the building, as though their sheer number were evidence of real reform activity, regardless of whether they bore any relation to each other or had any demonstrated value.

Education in America tends to be akin to religion, with its cycles of stability and instability, its periodic crusades, its movements, and its occasional bouts of zealotry and apostasy. When you study nineteenth century American history, you learn about the Great Awakenings, the eras when evangelists brought revival movements to the cities and the hinterlands, and thousands of Americans found a new faith or renewed their faith. In upstate New York, there was a region that came to be known as the "burned-over district" because so many movements, cults, evangelists, and enthusiasts had worked the area or emerged from it.

Something comparable happens periodically in American education. Just at the point when classroom methods and protocols seem to have grown stale, or at a time when society is experiencing an unusual degree of upheaval, along comes an educational movement to cast out the old and mobilize true believers. Each movement has its prophets, its sacred texts, its peculiar solutions to knotty problems. With each movement there are claims about discovering the Royal Road to Learning, or the key that will unlock the kingdom of student motivation, or the policy innovation that will cure all the ills of the schools at no extra cost.

My book, Left Back, which is a history of education in the twentieth century, chronicled the rise and fall of one educational movement after another. At one point, I decided to go back and count the movements: I wasn't sure that I got an accurate count, but I did identify at least 20 distinct educational movements, each with leaders and followers, slogans and mantras. Each claimed to be the latest, the best, the most innovative, and the final word in the reform of education. As each period of innovation waned, it was usually replaced by a movement called "back-to-basics," or "essentialism," or something else that suggested the death of a wave of failed innovation.

Advocates of school reform over the past century did not believe that innovation and science were at odds. On the contrary, they usually saw their own favored innovations as the quintessence of pedagogical science.

Reformers always have called upon science to validate their innovations, because they, like the American public, believe that science brings progress. So, school reformers, theorists, enthusiasts, and hucksters regularly compete in claiming that their innovations are based on solid science.

In retrospect, we can see that the frequent appeals to science and social science over the past century were usually not much more than rhetorical gambits meant to persuade the public and to disable one's opponents. Innovators always say that their changes are scientific, as compared to the status quo, which is unscientific. Unfortunately, because education has never been a science, and has had a very meager scientific basis, anyone could claim that almost anything was scientific, and the public was never the wiser about whose claims were stronger.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the vocational education movement was all the rage. Prominent reformers, state officials, social workers--even President Theodore Roosevelt--declared that it was unnecessary and wasteful to expect all students to study history and literature and foreign language. Such an education, they insisted, was not socially efficient. Relying on the then current tenets of social science, they advocated vocational and industrial education for a majority of students.

Having persuaded themselves that vocational and industrial education was the cutting edge of education reform, reformers embraced the junior high school movement, knowing that the purpose of these institutions was to encourage students to make vocational choices as early as age 12 or 13. In the early decades of the century, any educator who was modern, progressive, and scientific, or so it seemed, supported vocational and industrial education and the spread of junior high schools.

In the years immediately following World War I, school reformers eagerly embraced the promise of pedagogical science. In schools of education across the nation, psychology became the dominant department. Psychologists, it was widely believed, would find the answer to vexing questions and would create effective, scientifically based innovations. Psychologists at Teachers College, Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, and elsewhere believed that their scientific methods made it possible to identify what should be studied, how it should be studied, and which program was right for which children. Meanwhile, sociologists at the same institutions believed that their scientific studies would show the best way to organize and administer schools. These experts insisted that science would settle the debates of the past.

The single most important innovation in education science in that era was intelligence testing. The majority of education psychologists spent most of their time developing intelligence tests. They believed that they were on the verge of a major breakthrough in understanding the human mind. They thought that tests and scales would allow them to peer into the human mind, assess its capacities, and catalogue people according to their potential for future learning.

Psychologists like Edward Thorndike of Teachers College, Robert Yerkes of Harvard, and Carl Brigham of Princeton insisted that education science was ushering in a new millennium of social control and that IQ scores would enable educators to plan each child's education and future with certainty. Educators in public and private schools became persuaded that the IQ tests revealed the child's "natural mental ability" and "inborn capacity" for learning. Using the records of the Army's World War IQ tests, Carl Brigham of Princeton ranked ethnic groups by their intelligence, with a fairly high degree of specificity. The psychologists knew that what they found caused discomfort and challenged old-fashioned ideas about democracy, but scientists--they said-- could not be held responsible for their findings. Given their analysis, the job of the schools was to sort children into the right program, not to raise them up to higher levels of thinking and learning.

We now know that much of what the IQ testers measured was not innate intelligence but prior educational opportunity. We now know that the tests reflected not native intelligence but years of residence in the United States and years of education, among other things. Psychologists today look upon the high water mark of IQ testing in the 1920s with embarrassment. Yet at the time, the IQ testers represented the very apex of modern scientific thinking. They were the leading edge of innovation and science. And their prescriptions were disastrously wrong for American education.

The study of reading methods provides another cautionary tale of innovation disguised as education science. The history of reading instruction reveals many attempts in the nineteenth century to simplify it, to make it easier for children. Teachers were familiar with the alphabetic method, the word method, and the phonetic method. Many contemporary accounts of schools in the late nineteenth-century describe teachers who combined these methods, especially the word method and the phonetic method. It never occurred to them that there was supposed to be a war between phonics and whole language.

However, when the new field of reading research took off in the 1920s, it analyzed how rapidly students were able to read based on their eye movements. Researchers discovered, no surprise, that students read faster when they read silently; researchers declared that reading out loud was harmful for children because it slowed down the pace of their reading. Researchers warned parents not to read to their children because it would train children to get information through their ears instead of their eyes. And the same researchers decided that children should learn by encountering whole words, not phonetics. Teachers and parents were given what we today would recognize as an overdose of bad advice by researchers who thought that their scientific methods would put an end to pedagogical debates. It bears recalling that the proponents of whole language called it "psycholinguistics" to suggest that their favored approach had an unassailably scientific basis.

My favorite educator, William Chandler Bagley of Teachers College, Columbia University, entered the field of educational psychology in the late nineteenth century with the hope and expectation that one day there would be a genuine science of education. Over time he concluded that this was a false hope, and that education included too many unmeasurable dimensions to allow it to become comparable to the biological or physical sciences. Over the years, he made himself a pest to his fellow psychologists. Whenever they became invested in a grand idea, he punctured their pretensions with close analysis of their data and their arguments. Most misguided enthusiasms, Bagley recognized, stemmed not from foolishness or fraudulent motives, but from a failure to recognize the uncertainties of fact and theory associated with education. Education as a field, he pointed out, had a very slender inventory of well-established principles. As one drew closer to psychologists, he said, the louder grew the "clash of arms and the shoutings of the rival schools," because the different schools of thought did not even agree on basic facts and principles.

In one of his memorable essays, called "Teaching as a Fine Art," published in 1930, Bagley argued that teaching was unlikely ever to become an applied science. Teaching could never become, he said, a kind of technology that could be reproduced in exacting ways. He maintained that the closest analogy to teaching would be found in the fine arts, such as music, painting, sculpture, literature, and drama. Each of these arts requires knowledge, skill, and mastery of one's materials; to succeed is difficult, not easy. It was the advocates of technology, he said, who had insisted on separating methods of teaching from mastery of subject matter; it was they who taught courses in educational theory detached from subject matter. The teacher artist, on the contrary, understood that they must master methods and subject matter simultaneously.

Bagley sharpened his argument by offering the following contrast: "Suppose that I were desperately ill and through some miracle could secure as a physician either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young doctor just out of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Hippocrates was undoubtedly a great physician in his day; but I of course would take the young man just out of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine with his equipment of the latest facts and principles and techniques in his field. Now let us assume another possible choice. Let us say that I have been commissioned to employ a teacher for a group of boys and that, through some miracle, I am able to secure either Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from Teachers College, the latter with his knowledge of psychology and of the latest findings of educational science. With all due loyalty to my own institution and its products, I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates."

What did Bagley mean? Just that he had a great deal of faith in medical science and its innovations, but virtually none at all in education science and its innovations.

How far have we advanced since Bagley's era? Do we now have a well-established set of principles, facts, and theories in education? Is "scientifically based research" broadly accepted by professors of education and the research community? Surely we now know far more than the psychologists of Bagley's day, yet rival schools of thought continue to disagree about theory, policy, and practice. There are some education ideas that have greater consensus than others--one thinks of reading, where the conclusions of a wide spectrum of researchers have converged in recent years (yet, even here, there continue to be loud dissenters).

We may even have some well-grounded ideas based on policy research, yet I doubt that anyone is prepared to say that economic or political analysis has given us an uncontested, scientific basis for education policymaking. Certainly our policymakers are not willing to concede the point, not at the federal, state, or local levels, where arguments continue to rage about assessments, charter schools, vouchers, class size reduction, and many other strategies for school reform.

So does education really need more innovation? The answer seems obvious. Of course it does. Any field of endeavor that rejects innovation will wither intellectually. Any field that opposes improvement and experimentation is a dead field. Any field that is impervious to change and evolution becomes inert. Innovation is a necessity, not only because it allows possibilities for improvement, but because innovation attracts alert and inquisitive minds. Only those who have achieved perfection can afford to reject the value of innovation.

Necessary as it is, innovation too has its pitfalls.

For one thing, many proposals that claim to be innovative are not innovative at all, but rather are merely a revival of some failed idea from the past. If you are in the business of funding innovation, it is important to know the history of education reform so that you are not merely re-funding ideas that were innovations about 80 or 100 years ago. I recently had a call from an experienced education journalist in Boston asking whether I had heard about an exciting new program where the students had no curriculum, no tests, no textbooks, no lesson plans, and learned everything through personal experience. I had to smile, not because of her earnest enthusiasm, but because she seemed never to have heard of Marietta Pierce Johnson's Organic School in Fairhope, Alabama, or Junius Merriam's laboratory school at the University of Missouri, or even the Summerhill School. Before one hails an innovation, you should know whether it has been tried before, and with what results.

I admit that when I first heard that the Department of Education had created an Office of Innovation, I was less than enthusiastic. It is not because I oppose innovation, but because I have some strong doubts about whether the federal government has the capacity to do this well. Based on past history, going back at least thirty years, I am suspicious that the federal government is likely to be hoodwinked, to be taken in by fads, to fund the status quo with a new name, or to impose a heavy regulatory burden on those who seek its largesse.

Most innovators in education are likely to be too busy running their schools to seek federal funding. Most will be wary of the strings that come with federal funding and fearful of being strangled by red tape and paperwork. Some of those who seek federal funding for their innovation will be entrepreneurs with a scheme--not an illegal scheme, but a hot idea that is designed to get funding, regardless of its value or potential. Some will be the ones who know how to work the system. I wonder whether there is an oxymoronic quality to federally funded educational innovation.

I say this not to discourage those who have taken on the responsibility for the Office of Innovation and Improvement but to alert you to potential dangers and missteps.

There are surely ways that the federal government can help support innovation, but only if those who are in charge are exceedingly cautious and exceedingly humble. One of your most important tasks in the months ahead will be to establish the criteria by which you judge contenders for federal largesse. For those who have assumed this role, here are a few things to think about:

  • Bear in mind that most educators on the ground and in the trenches do not know that you exist. The ones who know about your programs are those who have a lobbyist who reads the Federal Register or a legislative office that watches for funding opportunities. This means that your applicants will be a self-selected group that may be savvy but that does not necessarily represent the acme of innovative thinking in education.

  • Be careful of anything that calls itself a "movement." Beware of bandwagons. Almost by nature, innovators tend to have a missionary spirit and are true believers. This is their job. Their sense of mission gives them energy and purpose. It is the job of federal officials to soberly evaluate claims for federal funding, without regard to the passion and zeal of claimants.

  • Be skeptical when reviewing proposals. Be wary of glorious promises. Listen sympathetically to believers when their ideas offer a realistic hope of improving education but do not become a believer yourself.

  • Check your ideology at the door. Be prepared to fund innovations that come from different perspectives from your own, so long as they can convince you and peer reviewers that their plans might produce workable and effective programs.

  • Make sure that peer review panels are not members of an old-boy network of professional innovators who are likely to take care of their friends and share their biases and their penchant for rhetorical flights of pedagogical fancy.

Those of you who fund innovation will have to address tough questions: If you insist on evidence of effectiveness before granting funding, are you actually supporting innovation or an already proven program? If you don't insist on some evidence of effectiveness, will you be funding a series of harebrained schemes?

The great thing about our country is that we have no shortage of risk-takers and innovators. Education, like other sectors, is blessed with people who are ready to blaze new trails, try new ideas, depart from established routines. These innovators are working in cities and school districts across the nation. They are innovating because they believe in it.

Important innovations are constantly coming to the fore, as educators seek ways to improve achievement, to restructure the delivery of educational services, and to make education more effective for all children. Charter schools, for example, are one of the most significant innovations of the past 15 years. The revival of small schools in big cities, not technically an innovation but certainly an innovative strategy, is another of the important changes of this past generation. New technologies hold out major promise for meeting the needs of children with disabilities. The KIPP academies, with their cohesive and replicable program, are another promising innovation.

So, yes, we need more innovation, because we cannot be satisfied with the current functioning of our education system, especially in our urban centers nor even in our affluent suburbs, where scores may be high but academic engagement is not. Innovation allows us to take a stand against complacency, passivity, and stagnation and to seek ever higher levels of success.

And, yes, we need to pursue the improvement of scientifically based research. There should be a strong federal commitment to support longitudinal studies that identify successful policies.

Unfortunately, we are not yet at a point of scientific consensus in education. When the AERA meets a couple of weeks from now, it is unlikely that the convention halls will echo support for the definitions of scientifically based research recently adopted by the Department of Education and enacted by the U.S. Congress.

The challenge ahead, I suggest, is whether the Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement can find ways to resolve these dilemmas. Can you support promising innovations without frittering away federal funds on one-shot hot ideas and hucksters? Can you identify and promote the innovations that are truly promising and that may someday meet the canons of research?

Some skeptics, knowing too much about the disappointing history of federally funded innovation and the flawed history of pedagogical science, will be watching closely to see if you in the Department can meet these challenges. I hope that you prove the skeptics wrong!

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Last Modified: 10/03/2005