September 14, 2011

Pull and Push: Strengthening Demand for Innovation in Education

By By Kim Smith and Julie Petersen

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Our schools face a productivity crisis: we have raised our expectations for what they will accomplish and the number of students they will prepare at high levels, while holding resources relatively constant—or even decreasing them. By “productivity” we do not mean merely “efficiency.” Efficiency is about cost savings and when narrowly pursued, can actually put quality at risk. But improving public education is not about cutting corners, it’s about delivering greater and deeper learning to a greater number of our children, without a significant infusion of additional resources, be they time, money or energy, or all of the above.

To get there, we will need to tap innovation—which means simply a new approach that produces better results and can work at scale. Other papers to date in this Innovation for the Public Good series—including Steering Capital on the financial capital markets for education innovation, and Supporting and Scaling Change on federal efforts to stimulate innovation—have focused on creating a high-quality supply of innovation, and on removing the impediments to doing so. In this paper, co-authors Kim Smith and Julie Petersen examine the other side of the equation: the demand for innovation by educator and student users, school and district buyers, policymakers, and others who provide funding for educational goods and services, like foundations and even parents. Strengthening, sharpening and “smartening” the way these buyers and users find and implement innovation can make a big difference in bringing more productive, effective teaching and learning approaches to the kids and schools that need it.

In other sectors, the “venturesome” role of customers allows innovation to flourish. As innovation researcher Amar Bhide has observed, “the willingness and ability of users to undertake a venturesome part plays a critical role in determining the ultimate value of innovations.” But in education, there simply isn’t enough of this so-called “venturesome” or “smart” demand to go around. Education buyers—mostly districts, but also states and schools—are, like most government agencies, extremely conservative and with complex, increasingly difficult jobs. Of course, there are some early adopters who eagerly push the market forward by piloting new programs and experimenting with new technologies, but the wider education field rarely rewards these innovators by adopting more effective innovations quickly and broadly, as other fields like technology, retail and manufacturing commonly do.

This paper summarizes the barriers that minimize the number and power of early adopters and that limit wider adoption and the spread of innovations, including:

  • Policy barriers, including lack of incentives for improvement, inflexible funding mechanisms and the separation of users from buyers;
  • Information barriers, including a dearth of understanding of the needs and preferences of users and buyers, as well as limited data about the availability, usage, cost and quality of educational products and services; and
  • Cultural barriers, including the tendency to operate within silos, a mistrust of outside solutions or approaches, a reliance on relationship-based sales, a reluctance to measure return on investment or replace labor with technology—and processes designed to reinforce these behaviors.

After considering these barriers, the authors present a range of approaches to strengthening demand for innovation in public education. Based on a survey of and interviews with a variety of stakeholders in the system and a problem-solving meeting that looked both inside and beyond education to identify lessons and opportunities, the authors identify four primary ways to ensure that the educators who make up the demand part of this equation can act as a greater lever for innovations to improve student outcomes and overall productivity:

  1. Encourage early adopters: Identify, support and strengthen the work of education’s existing early adopters.
  2. Bolster smart adoption: Replace policy and operational barriers that inhibit smart adoption with infrastructure that encourages it.
  3. Provide better information to encourage smart demand: Create useful information tools to inform and strengthen both early and mainstream demand.
  4. Reward productivity improvements: Redefine the culture of public education so that people and organizations are able to identify, obtain and be rewarded for improved outcomes and productivity.

Overall, the rate at which innovations emerge in education pales in comparison to that of industries that depend upon education—science, technology, defense, and medicine. Moreover, the growth of education innovations is painfully slow. This is keeping our nation’s students stuck in an industrial-era system that is simply not preparing them for success in college and career in the 21st century. As such, creating more “smart demand” in education is a critical task facing. And just as the barriers to such demand are spread among the various stakeholder groups, so too must solutions arise from interdisciplinary approaches that bring together the goals of the public sector, the needs and preferences of educators and the students and families they serve, the ideas and innovations of nonprofit and for-profit entrepreneurs, and the resources of the philanthropic and investment sectors.

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Additional Resources

This paper is the third publication from the Innovation for the Public Good: A Case Study of US Education project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Innovation in the public sector happens at the nexus of policy, research, capital, and practice. This project analyzes some of the key aspects of an emerging ecosystem for innovation in public education in the US, including the flow of investment capital for such efforts, the uptake of innovations by buyers and users, federal efforts to stimulate and scale innovation, and ways that technology could facilitate innovation investment and practice. Drawing on surveys, interviews, and working groups, the project highlights recent efforts to fuel and steer more innovation, and frames the remaining challenges that lie ahead for the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. For more on this project and its publications, visit

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