Innovation debates in North America

November 25, 2009 at 5:17 pm 4 comments

by Valerie Hannon

In my second week in North America, working with politicians, district superintendents, school principals and not-for-profit educators. The desire for radical change in education is palpable. In British Columbia, one of the highest (depending on the measures, perhaps the highest) performing provinces in Canada, the sense I had was of a system really up for some radical shifts in how learning is organised and made fit for the 21st Century. Points of convergence include:the sense that the skills and competencies young people acquire in schools are not the ones they are going to need; that disengagement is widespread, amongst ‘achievers’ as well as those ‘gone’; that technologies are not being leveraged smartly; and that some fundamentals of the goals and objectives have become distorted. The search is for the leadership (political and professional) to redirect the system; and at the same time, for processes through which learners and educators can be doing it for themselves, irrespective of central strategies and the vagaries of policy initiatives. The debate is all about next steps: safeguarding what has been achieved; not risking the gains which have been made; but creating the space to shunt the system up to the next level.

In the US the debate is dominated by the imminence of the fiscal stimulus which will be directed at education, principally through the Race to the Top fund. Last week (November 16) details were announced from the US Department of Education of the $4 billion in grants which would be made available to the States. Those most committed to seeing a transformation of the system however are disappointed to see the proportion of the funding which is directed at what we in the UK would see as exhausted strategies: higher stakes accountability; emphases on standards and assessment; school ‘turnaround’ strategies. It is understandable however, given the low level of confidence in the public schools system, that measures to lever up the worst (moving from ‘awful’ to ‘acceptable’) should be prioritised. And there are, in the great swathes of funding streams about to become available, opportunities for more radical shifts to take place – particularly through the Charter School movement. In a year that saw the death of Ted Sizer, the inspiration behind the Coalition of Essential Schools, it should be remembered that this country has given rise to some of the most progressive and powerful thinking available about schooling.

Meanwhile, an ‘only in America’ story. In Chicago, the charismatic and deeply respected black President of the School Board, Michael Scott, is found in the river shot dead. It appears to be a suicide, but his family and anyone who had anything to do with the man vehemently deny that this could be the case. His memorial, held in Chicago on Sunday 22/11, was testimont to the difference a driven and gifted individual can make in public service.


Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services, Innovation Policy, Innovation Worldwide.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jeremy  |  November 27, 2009 at 8:08 am

    I think that for effective action to be possible, you need to understand the world around you. Is there something going on behind the scenes that prevents innovation in education?

    A hidden dictatorship, perhaps?

    I guess I’m being silly. The US isn’t a dictatorship. If it were, the authorities would have told us.

  • 2. alecpatton  |  November 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    The search is for the leadership (political and professional) to redirect the system; and at the same time, for processes through which learners and educators can be doing it for themselves, irrespective of central strategies and the vagaries of policy initiatives.

    You make an interesting distinction, Valierie. Do you have a sense that policymakers are trying to help schools ‘do it for themselves?’ or is it more that a grassroots group are working out ways to work independently of policy-shifts (like ‘recession-proof’ businesses, there’s something very appealing about ‘policy-proof’ innovation, that can carry on regardless of the priorities enumerated in the white paper du jour).

    • 3. valeriehannon  |  December 2, 2009 at 5:29 pm

      It is of course crazy to make generalisations about a vast and diverse continent – not single State – like the US. In terms of the prevailing policy environment however, my read is thatneither of your descriptors apply.
      There is, on the one hand, a detrmination on the part of the administration to make a better fist of hauling their sprawling system up to an acceptable level, when it is manifestly lagging behind so many other developed countries. There is a strong sense of the need to bring evidence and rationality to the piece in contrast to the previous, ideologically-driven, administration. That points to a school improvement paradigm, with the emphasis on well-evidenced approaches, being privileged.
      Simultaneously there is recognition that this is nowhere near enough; that there are already schools modelling genuine 21C approaches, and that through the freedoms they have (say through Charter status; or though Foundation funding) these schools wil continue to drive on.
      The question is: can these two strands connect and intertwine?

  • 4. Martin Yarnit  |  December 21, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Seeing this reminds me to send you a copy of the report on Real World Learning I did for Edge and Esmee Fairbairn. It’s at


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