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"Innovation, Motherhood and Apple Pie": A Conversation with Top Researcher Russ Whitehurst

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Grover (Russ) Whitehurst was the founding director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences. He currently directs the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

On June 4th, we praised him for questioning some education reformers' blind approval of innovation for innovation’s sake. (See his compelling essay, “Innovation, Motherhood and Apple Pie.”)

Whitehurst recently joined us by telephone to describe his concerns in greater detail.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Thanks for joining us.

WHITEHURST: I'm pleased to be here.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Let me begin with an incantation that I think you wrote. It runs, "Full moon and candles/magic times three/we summon the power of innovation/to be.” Can you explain that?

WHITEHURST: As I have talked to people in education about innovation, which seems to be the new buzzword, I have with some frequency asked them to give me an example of what they mean: an innovation that they think is on the horizon that is going to transform the delivery of education in this country. The typical response is, we don't know what that would be.

So it seems to me that in many cases innovation is being invoked almost as if it is magic. We don't know exactly what it is and we don't know what it looks like, but if we could only release it, it would fix all of our problems.

What I was trying to convey is that we should not believe, as adults, in Santa Claus or magic to solve our problems. If we're thinking about innovation, we need to get serious about what it is, what types we're interested in, and how we expect to use processes of innovation to advance education.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: This gets to your definition of innovation….

WHITEHURST: First, I think it's important to note that innovation is just introducing something new, and you hope it's going to make things better. So much of what any organization does as it tries to solve problems falls under the general category of innovation.

Within that broad category, it is important to differentiate innovations that work from those that don't—effective versus ineffective innovations. If an innovation is the introduction of something new with the intent to be useful -- reality and intent are often two different things -- we need procedures and processes in place to carefully evaluate innovations so that we can tell the difference between those that are actually improving the state affairs versus those that are just a hope and a wish.

Another distinction is between process and product innovations. A product innovation is a new form of something. Almost everyone can look at it and see that it is something new. The example I used in the essay we're talking about is the iPhone. It was clearly different than any other PDA or cell phone on the market when it was introduced, so it clearly was a product innovation.

But anybody who has an iPhone can tell you there is a big difference in functionality between the initial version and the present version, as well as, I'm sure, the version that's supposed to come out this week or next week. Most of that improvement is not seen on the surface at all. The iPhone looks pretty much like the same product that was released a couple of years ago. All of the improvements are behind the curtain--they are process improvements. They have to do, for example, with the amount of third party software that is available and the ability to link the iPhone to enterprise networks so it can be used as part of business.

Those are process innovations. We typically don't focus on them in the way that we do on product innovations, but they are extremely important to the success of any product and the degree to which an innovation works.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Why do you think process innovation gets less respect?

WHITEHURST: Process innovation is gradual. It's hard work. It's sweating the small stuff. In attempting to improve a process, there are seldom occasions where what you had accomplished by the end of Tuesday is dramatically different from what you had accomplished at the end of Monday. So there is seldom a time when you can have a launch party to celebrate that you finally got it done. I think all of those reasons can detract from process innovation receiving the necessary attention.

Businesses understand the importance of process innovation, and they make sure, for example, that engineers who work to improve the functionality of software are recognized and rewarded for what they're doing. There is less attention to this type of innovation in education than there is in business. One of the intents of my essay was to get people who are focused on education to understand that process innovation is as important in education as it is in the world of technology and business.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What about arguments that process innovation just yields too little improvement too slowly?

WHITEHURST: Let me respond with respect to what I see as a division among policy wonks in education. Between those who will not say it but effectively suggest that traditional schools, at least in large urban areas, can't be fixed and that we need product innovations to displace the current system of education delivery, versus those who think that the long, hard process of improving traditional schools is one that's critical and that can be successful over the long term.

I am in neither of those camps exclusively. I would like to see an environment that favors product innovation. I do not think the nation should be trapped in only one model of education delivery. But I also very strongly believe that whether we are talking about charter schools, private schools that low income kids attend with a voucher, traditional schools or magnet schools -- whatever the school type -- we need to pay a lot more attention to the small stuff and to improving processes to make these schools high-performing organizations, so that you can walk into the school building and notice immediately that things are working. There's a receptionist or there's an arrow that tells you where the receptionist is. People greet you pleasantly. If you want information you can get it. The cafeteria is clean and serving decent food that students like. There are parking spaces around the building that are appropriately utilized. If there is transportation to and from the school, it's working.

All of these things are important to the business of delivering education. While we need to focus on student achievement as the ultimate bottom line, if we don't focus on the panoply of services that are provided by schools I think we are less likely to get it right in terms of the ultimate outcome, which is student learning.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You mentioned earlier in this interview that there are effective and ineffective innovations. Many people are advocating for very large product changes that do not necessarily have research right now to support them. Should we be concerned about that?

WHITEHURST: Certainly. There are people out there advocating for the destruction of the traditional school system and the replacement of the typical district neighborhood school model with a portfolio model in which the bar to opening up a school would be set relatively low. Dozens to hundreds of schools could be started. There would be some process in place to weed out those schools that are not doing well, and through a sort of Darwinian model of shutting down ineffective schools and allowing new entrants into the marketplace we would eventually get to a point where every school is effective.

That is an attractive conceptual model, but we have, to the best of my knowledge, no evidence that it really can work at scale. People point to the New Orleans Recovery Zone as an example, but that is unique in many ways, and I think it is not a good model for what would happen if, for example, we replaced the Houston Independent School District with a thousand charter schools.

I think we need to move cautiously and respect the need to improve traditional schools. Ninety-five percent of children are served in those schools, and they need to get better. They are going to get better through process improvements.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Let's get to the question of charter schools. There are successful charter school with pretty compelling evidence and data tied to them. You addressed this briefly in your essay. Couldn't that be used as an example of why this particular product innovation is a good one?

WHITEHURST: There is good evidence that some charter schools are having a very positive impact on students who enroll in those schools. We have to respect that evidence, and certainly if I were a parent in an area served by a variety of schools and I had evidence on the effectiveness of one of those charters, I would want my child in that school.

But there are issues with regard to the degree to which the evidence we have on these charter schools can generalize to all charter schools. Researchers have shown that very popular charter schools, where dozens of families knock at the door for every available slot, are doing better for kids than the alternatives.

But there are strong differences among charter schools and their performance, just as there are among traditional public schools and their performance. So our ability, through research, to demonstrate that some charter schools are more effective than the alternatives available to some children does not allow us to jump to the conclusion that if all schools were charters then, on net, all children would be performing better. We don't know that yet.

I do not see the present evidence as suggesting it is time to throw in the towel on traditional public schools. The findings that we're getting from the more successful charter schools provide very interesting insights on what may be necessary process improvements in all schools.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So product innovation also yields knowledge about process innovation?

WHITEHURST: Sure, because it is probably not the governance model itself--that is, a charter governance model versus a traditional governance model--that is at work when charter schools are more effective. It's what those charter schools are doing.

It can be the culture in the school. It can be the teachers that the school attracts. It can be a longer school day. It can be the required commitment from parents to support their children as they enter the charter school. As we learn or try to learn what's working in the more effective charters, we should be eager to use that information to improve all schools.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: That brings us to the question of research. Do you think that as a nation right now, we devote enough energy and enough resources to education research?

WHITEHURST: Absolutely not. The Department of Health and Human Services devotes about 42 percent of its discretionary budget to research and development through the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and other research entities within Health and Human Services. The U.S. Department of Education devotes about one-half of one percent of its discretionary budget to the development of knowledge. Surely education is a knowledge-intensive industry. We need to invest more in learning what works and what doesn't, for whom and under what circumstances.

We have gotten to the point over the last few years where there are a number of existence proofs for the value of research investments. That is, those of us interested in advocating for more funding for research can now point to examples where the investment has yielded real knowledge that is useful for schools. I'm optimistic that there is going to be a hunger for more of that.

The Obama administration has proposed a healthy increase in education research funding for their budget proposal for 2010, and I hope that's a harbinger of things to come. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is investing much more in knowledge creation than they were in the early years of their education funding. I think that is a very good sign as well.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Let me conclude with a very general question, and that is if there are any questions I should have asked you but didn't?

WHITEHURST: No, I don't think so. I appreciated your questions.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Thank you very much.


Blog Title Edited 6/16/09