Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Innovation at the Core

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Innovation at the Core

Article excerpt

Improving classroom practice requires more than simply having good ideas. Educators must focus on developing technical, human, and social capital both inside and outside schools.

Policy makers in the United States often assume that as a nation we have the personnel, knowledge, and funding to reach many of our education goals. In turn, many policies and improvement efforts rely heavily on strategies that emphasize the power of individuals to take advantage of that potential and catapult schools to higher levels of achievement.

Such assumptions, however, mask the complexities of innovation and underestimate what is really required to change the status quo and make substantial improvements in schooling on a wide scale. Although innovation suggests a dramatic departure or a disruptive event or product that leads to something previously difficult to imagine, innovation isn't always big or bold. Like change, innovation covers a wide range of possibilities, from small adaptations to revolutions. In fact, innovations often evolve out of a series of what may seem to be minor developments. As a consequence, instead of waiting for disruptive products and technologies, we need to create the conditions for individuals, groups, and organizations to adapt, innovate, and improve all the time. Developing those conditions begins with rethinking what is really required to build capacity for educational improvement and recognizing the social and systemic aspects of innovation.

Improvement and innovation depend on technical, human, and social capital. In education, capacity means the resources and effort needed to achieve a particular goal. Schools have low capacity when they need substantial new resources, time, and energy in order to improve student outcomes, or they need major changes in structures or routines to improve their effectiveness. Conversely, schools with high capacity don't require significant new investments or changes to make improvements.

The simplicity of this definition, however, ignores aspects of capacity that have critical implications for schools. First, while conventional views equate capacity with the money or resources schools need to improve student learning, studies of large-scale reform efforts in the 1990s and 2000s have identified a broader array of factors to be considered. These factors include money and resources (what many refer to as technical capital); the skills, knowledge, and dispositions of the personnel involved (human capital); and relationships, social networks, trust, and collective commitment (social capital) (Cohen & Ball, 1999; Goertz, Floden, & O'Day, 1995; Spillane, Hallet, & Diamond, 2003). Second, studies of efforts to turn around chronically failing schools and schools identified as needing improvement have also shown that simply having resources doesn't mean those resources will be used well (Corcoran & Goertz, 1995; Hatch, 2009; Malen & Rice, 2004). Maximizing the use of resources and using them strategically to meet key goals depends on the abilities of the people involved and the social connections between them.

FIG. 1.
Key aspects of school capacity

Instructional capacity

Ability to make improvements in practice
and student learning

Organizational capacity

Ability to improve instruction and
student learning in all classes in a
school, district, or network

Local/regional capacity

Ability to improve instruction and
student learning in a community (city,
municipality, state, etc.)

Source: Thomas Hatch

Historically, many large-scale initiatives to improve schools initially focused on providing schools with technical capital (in the form of funding and compensatory programs), while more recent efforts have focused particularly on human capital. However, these policy strategies often have ignored the power of relationships and social capital. Thus, schools where staff have developed good working relationships, share a common understanding of what they're doing and why, and who trust one another have more opportunities to share expertise and information, and are more likely to be effective with their students (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Leana, 2011; Putnam, 2000). …

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