Messy, Moral Questions for Education Innovation

Nov 11, 2019

As a humble participant in a range of education reforms, I am aware of reformers’ less-than-stellar-track record. It is tempting to stop trying to bring about change within educational and political systems that are not designed to produce and absorb innovation. To date, I’ve chosen otherwise, concluding, like so many others, that no matter how unlikely the chances are of meaningful reform at scale, maybe an educational black swan will glide into the next school year’s pond.

Whether such a radical departure from our history comes to pass or not, I submit that there is a moral imperative for reformers—from designers to adopters to funders—to apply a deeper understanding of the history of educational reform in our work. If we never realize our visions, we should, at least, miss the mark in wholly new ways that future scholars can assess as unique failures, rather than retrograde re-treads.

There is more than a little bit of data available to inform a more enlightened discourse. From exhaustive historical and political analyses such as Larry Cuban’s and David Tyack’s “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” to the innumerable daily experiences of students, families, teachers, administrators and policymakers who have seen wave after wave of reform crash against the rocks of reality, it is hard to argue that innovation has fundamentally delivered an excellent, equalizing education for all children.

Education as we’ve conceived it in this country has yet to produce flourishing human beings, architects of their own lives safe and secure in who they are and capable of impacting their world on any scale they dare attempt. Yet despite the availability of so much historical data, we reformers infrequently and insufficiently subject our diagnoses and solutions with a reckoning with reality.

Challenging the possibility and promise of innovation feels, on some level, inherently un-American. As a result, there can be uneasiness in raising the question. That discomfort may be compounded by the fact that some questions can be interpreted as critical judgment of those who dedicate their lives to our students. That is not my intent here. I suggest, however, that we have a moral responsibility to agitate the waters in our turbid and often unreflective innovation pool, particularly if we want to do more than just crane our necks in hopes of sighting a black swan any time soon.

I keep a running list of questions that we might pose much more frequently in reform-minded conversations. The following is only a subset of a longer list, but it illustrates opportunities to bring morality into our education innovation consciousness.

  • How does the history of education reform inform our proposed innovation?
  • Should we give up our focus on a tiny number of moonshots, and concentrate instead on a larger number of more achievable, if smaller impact, implementations?
  • Does evaluating an innovation’s potential in terms of scalability obstruct the design and development of smaller, easier to adopt and implement innovations? If we could guarantee a 1% improvement in student outcomes, would we be willing to trade that for repeatedly failed attempts to achieve a 20% improvement?
  • How do we justify designing an innovation for a system that is likely not designed to take advantage of the innovation? What if our innovation vision unreasonably, and ultimately, inequitably, fails to acknowledge the constraints of the current system?
  • What if our well-intentioned attempt to innovate took time, money and human capital away from implementing existing, proven interventions known to develop fundamental skills, such as reading?
  • What if our innovation’s use of resources contributed to maintaining or exacerbating conditions that inequitably impact certain populations—for example, black boys’ life-threateningly low literacy rate?
  • If we had to choose, which would be more important: scaling teacher capacity to innovate in the current system, or designing a new system that can adopt a larger number of innovations at scale?

It is past time to put our morals where our mouths are. Our failure to engage in hard conversations, informed by an awareness of the moral implications of our innovations, runs the risk of continuing to bet our students’ futures on the luck of a swan. If we are truly in this for the children, we ought not fear interrogation of our rationales, especially if we exhibit defensiveness regarding the promise of education innovation. There is a morality implicit in our choices and it is incumbent upon education reformers and innovators to make plain how we justify our actions.


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