Why “Innovation” is Ed Reformers’ Favorite Word

The Council for Chief State School Officers runs the Innovation Lab Network. The recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act allows Innovative Assessment Systems. Bellwether Education encourages states to create “Offices of Innovation.”

The word “innovative” is beloved by education reformers.

But why

The answer lies in the work of Clayton Christensen.

In “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Christensen first proposed his now-famous theory that certain products or services are so “disruptive” to the status quo that they eventually displace established competitors. (Think Amazon.com disrupting the publishing industry.)

In an article in the New Yorker called “The Disruptive Machine,” Harvard historian Jill Lepore describes the extraordinary reach of his theory:

“If the company you work for has a chief innovation officer, it’s because of …“The Innovator’s Dilemma.” If your city’s public-school district has adopted an Innovation Agenda, which has disrupted the education of every kid in the city, you live in the shadow of “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

Lepore is highly critical of Christensen’s theory, suggesting that it does not hold up to scrutiny.  Scholars from MIT are similarly unimpressed.

Christensen is defensive of his theory, but recognizes its potential for manipulation. In the Bloomberg Business Review, he explains:

“I never thought … that the word disruption has so many connotations in the English language, that people would then flexibly take an idea, twist it, and use it to justify whatever they wanted to do in the first place.”

And yet this appears to be precisely the way Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation collided with education reform.

In the forward of Disrupting Class: How Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learn, Christensen tells us that he was drawn into the field of education when a reform network called “Education Evolving,” led by long time reformer Ted Kolderie, came to him with the following request:

“Clay, if you could just stand next to the world of public education and examine it through the lenses of your research on innovation, we bet you could understand more deeply how to improve our schools.”

Kolderie has long been a quintessential ed reformer, with a fervent commitment to tearing down straw men that can be replaced with technology and charter schools.

In “How Information Technology Can Enable 21st Century Schools,” Kolderie writes that school is currently “designed around the adult,” and that it is “quite common to hear people talk about delivering education.”

(Do you smell the rat?)


He continues: “Today, however, IT is enabling organizations of all kinds to move from mass production to mass customization.”

The concept of technology-mediated, personalized learning is, of course, far from innovative.  In 1974, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Robert Scanlon, was calling for the very same “innovation”:

“The objectives of individualized instruction can be used as a basis for designing educational technology. How these devices will be made more cost- effective by new miniaturizations and transistors remains a question, but plans for their utilization must begin now.”

When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized in December, Senator Lamar Alexander – a long time admirer of Kolderi – said: “It will unleash a flood of excitement and innovation and student achievement that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

You could almost make a drinking game out of it.





Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

2 thoughts on “Why “Innovation” is Ed Reformers’ Favorite Word”

  1. It’s another word that has been twisted into a tool for manipulation. After all, you aren’t against “innovation” are you? You’d have to be a fool to be against “innovation”. “Proficiency” is another word that has been twisted. Who would be against a student being proficient? However, the true result is that students lose proficiency just as they lose motivation in this system.
    Keep the posts coming!


  2. I just wish the rephormers could point to one actually “innovative” thing they’ve done. I mean, aside from abuse as pedagogy, that is. I mean, “no excuses” drill-and-kill is as old as the U.S. military (or, more likely, as old as the military in general). Pushing out poor test takers to get higher test scores is “innovative” only because public schools aren’t allowed to do that. Nothing new or innovative about fighting unions or abusing/underpaying the work force. If there’s something “innovative” about rephorm that I’m missing, I’d be curious to hear it.


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