Innovate Debate!

teen driverI really enjoy Mike Petrilli as a colleague and friend but when it comes to policy calls he’s like a teenage driver with a disconcerting tendency to over-correct in every turn.   First he was enthusiastically for No Child Left Behind, then enthusiastically against it.   First for a big federal role in education, then one of its biggest skeptics.   Now, over at the Flypaper blog and in Usually Reliable Robelen’s Ed Week story Petrilli  discusses why he doesn’t like the paper that Sara Mead and I just did for Brookings on innovation — even though he used to help lead the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation! 

Mike’s argument against our call for a more robust federal role in supporting innovation in education seems to boil down to a belief that because the Bush Administration really screwed up some things like Reading First and Supplemental Services it means federal efforts in innovation more generally are bound to fail.  That’s one possible explanation, sure, but it means turning the wheel too far one way to get out of a skid.   Instead, another explanation is that the Bush Administration just screwed some things up and that while there are cautionary lessons to be learned, all is not lost.   For instance, Mike claims that the “Grow What Works” fund idea amounts to picking favorites.  But if you have clear criteria for quality and eligibility and unlike the Reading First implementation you follow them and the law, you can guard against that charge while supporting ideas that work.   Likewise, on Supplemental Services, the perverse incentives problem was pretty clear from the start and was aggravated by lax enforcement of the provisions and inattention to quality by the Bush Administration so I’m unclear exactly what lesson we should draw there beyond the lessons of implementation and program design.

In the paper Sara and I look at innovation across the government more generally and in much more depth than the policy brief– and there are real challenges to doing this from the public sector, Mike is hardly wrong about that.  But like Mark Twain’s admonition about the cat and the hot stovetop, we should be careful not to overgeneralize from the past eight years.

Update:  First Mike and now Jay Greene argue that Sara and I are, in Mike’s words, “claim[ing] that the federal government will magically be able to sweep aside the hurdles that are keeping the KIPPs of the world from growing faster…”

We argue no such thing.   We think that federal level efforts could help address federal level barriers but we see the federal to state prodding as being about incentives not mandates and the paper makes that clear.  As the history of the federal role in K-12 schools shows, incentives can help change state policy.  And, in a tight fiscal climate, tying resources to reform is all the more powerful a lever.

8 Replies to “Innovate Debate!”

  1. Take KIPP, for instance, as an example of innovation. A lot of their approach is irrelevent to system-wide reforms because there is a limited number of KIPP students and KIPP teachers, and the way they use them would burn out teachers in a neighborhood setting. But, like the Hedgehog and the Fox, they have at least one understanding that is essential. KIPP put into words the awareness that most inner city teachers have – that before you can teach the subject well enough to make a difference in poor children’s lives, you have to first teach them how to be students. that takes compassion and energy, as well as firmness. Ordinary bureacracies are unlikely to tackle that issue. (and haven’t the people at the Flypaper been saying something similar in regard to that awful term “the new paternalism?”)

    But it also stands to reason that two aspects of NCLB would have to go if your ideas have a chance. Firstly, you have to address one of the original sins of NCLB, the attempt to guarentee success. (why would civil rights crusaders ever seek guarentees?, but that gets off in another story) There is no guarantee that any single new innovation will work. So the guarantee/CYA attitude has been death to creatvitity.

    Secondly, there is no way to have NCLB-type accountability and make your prosposals work.

    When I think of NCLB-type accountability, I think of the scene in the old Vonnegut novel where weights are attached to the arms and legs of ballet dancers. You can have creative art or your can have top down, social engineering, but you can’t have both. I see your proposal as a way to cut the chains off education, and release the American spirit. I’d think conservatives would be more thrilled with that then they are worried that subjectivity to intrude into the decision-making process. In fact, I’m shocked, shocked that educational politics might intrude into presidential politics.

    I’ve got computer problems so I’ can’t take the time to check spelling etc. sorry

  2. What? The axis of “think” tanks disagree? The echo in the echo chamber has gone mute? Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.

  3. i agree with andy on most things and am sympathetic with the people and groups he and sara believe to be innovating effectively and creatively.

    but, irrepective of bush administration innovations (most of which, i would argue forcefully, have been effective), why and how would the proposed new office work any better than, say, the labs and the comprehensive centers? some of them do good work, particularly, recently. but they do not have a long and rich history of supporting real research-based practice and effective innovation.

    perhaps andy and sara will devote an additional piece to explaining exactly how these new federal efforts will be less immune to the congressional pressure, the power of status quo interests, and the many competing interests out in the field so that only, or even mostly, the good will get the funding.

    sandy kress

  4. On blackberry:

    Obama will destroy TFA by supporting it. There are only so many idealistic Ivy League grads willing to work in crappy conditions for crappy pay. Right now they do it because its selective and looks good on their resume. An Obama expansion will dilute its exclusivity and turn it into just another unsucessful way of training teachers.

    Why has no one ever did a comparative study of effective education schools to see which programs get it right, after controlling for all the usual factors.

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