Why Aren’t There More Innovative Schools?

The below article was published by Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute. The original article can be found here. 


I’ve known my Class Disrupted co-host Diane Tavenner, who started and has led Summit Public Schools for the last 20 years, for over a decade now. I’ll be honest with you. Diane doesn’t get all that excited when she visits most new schools these days. Which is why I perked up when she raved on our most recent episode of Class Disrupted about a school visit she had just done in South Carolina.

The school is called the Anderson institute of Technology, or better known as AIT. Students at AIT hail from three school districts and spend half or full days working in 18 different career pathways. According to Diane, “the learning spaces literally replicate real-world settings like doctor’s offices and welding shops, and a state-of-the-art barn and a green room that… rivals that of most production studios [among others].” The school partners “with tons of local companies and businesses as well as colleges and universities. So the connections are real and present.”

As Diane said, “so many people say they’re preparing students for college and career, but these folks seem to be doing so in honestly the [clearest] way that I’ve seen.”

Which raised the question as to why that is. Why aren’t there more innovative schools? Incidentally, this is essentially the topic of the Fordham Institute’s latest Wonkathon, in which they ask how to reinvent high schools. You can read (and vote!) on those submissions here.

But in the latest episode of Class Disrupted, titled “Why Aren’t There More Innovative Schools?”, Diane and I offered some thoughts. And part of our thoughts fell on policymakers, many of whom think they are giving public schools permission to innovate by creating waivers for which schools can apply to escape certain policies and bureaucratic requirements. But as Diane and I explain, innovating through waivers isn’t really creating much of a permission or expectation of innovation.

To be clear, this isn’t the only reason we don’t see more innovation in high schools. Schools’ organizational models and value networks (see Tom Arnett’s most recent paper here on this) share plenty of the blame. Some of the submissions to the Wonkathon tackle these reasons as well. But our point in the episode is that waivers and asking for permission to innovate just aren’t the answer.

In the episode, I also listed some other schools that I thought were doing elements of what excited Diane so much about AIT. And Tom Vander Ark wrote me afterward about the CAPS Network, which is radically changing high schools by creating student professional study programs. It has almost 80 locations serving over 200 school districts around the country, such as the St. Vrain Valley Innovation Center and the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, both in Colorado.

Plus there’s also The Canopy Project, started at the Christensen Institute and now run by the Center for Reinventing Public Education and hosted by Transcend, that tracks innovative schools around the country.

But the point still stands. There isn’t nearly enough innovation. And policy through waiver—no matter how aggressive departments of education are in helping districts apply—isn’t going to do the trick.

From Reopen to Reinvent

My latest book, From Reopen to Reinvent, of course tackles this broader topic and seeks to help schools reinvent themselves from the bottom up. In essence, it addresses the other side of the coin around why there isn’t a lot of innovation in schools.

I wrote an article in the latest issue of the District Management Journal that reviews some of the biggest lessons around how to reinvent schools from my book. You can check out the piece, “A Better Way Forward: How Districts Can (Re)create School for Every Child,” here. It’s chock full of case studies of actual districts making bold moves and, yes, innovating, that I hope will inspire action.

A trio of podcasts from Future U.

Finally, over at Future U., Jeff Selingo and I released three new podcasts.

First, there was our last stop in 2022 on our Future U. Campus Tour at Bowie State University, Maryland’s first historically Black university. This was a fascinating conversation, because while there is a lot of doom and gloom across much of higher education right now, things are positively booming at Bowie State in some really exciting ways. Think enrollment increases, partnerships with employers as part of classes, innovation in pedagogy, and more. Check out the episode here. And a thank you again to Salesforce.org for making the Campus Tour possible.

Second, there have been a spate of headlines in the news about higher ed as of late. If you’re looking to have a hot take over the holidays with family, check out this episode, “Rankings, Elite Online BA, and Future of the SAT.” In it Jeff and I talk about:

  • The move by Yale Law, Harvard Law, and more to leave the US News Rankings—and whether we might see something similar in the undergrad rankings;
  • Georgetown University and Coursera teaming up to launch an online bachelor’s degree in liberal studies;
  • Jeff’s piece in New York Magazine about why some colleges are abandoning the SAT and others, like Georgetown and MIT, are sticking with it and what that means for high schoolers;
  • And what’s with 50% of presidents in the Big Ten having resigned or been fired this year.

Finally, the federal government is officially up in arms around college financial aid letters. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, what’s known as the federal government’s watchdog, issued a report that, among other things, showed that a whopping 91% of schools don’t properly list their net price, or the amount a student is expected to pay for tuition, fees, room, board and other expenses after taking into account scholarships and grants in their financial aid letters. At worst, the report said, the letters contain misleading information that causes students to enroll in schools they can’t afford.

Just how bad is this practice?

, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, wrote on Twitter that, “This sort of behavior would get you hauled before Congress if it were any other industry. In higher education it’s accepted as normal. Colleges are not your friends. They are rent-seeking special interests and we should acknowledge them as such.” Ouch.

And Rachel Fishman from the New America Foundation actually joined me and Jeff in April of 2019—yes, that’s over three years ago—to discuss her research around this topic. The headline? It was bad then, and it hasn’t gotten better.

We went back into the archives to share our interview with Fishman to shed light—and historical perspective—on the federal government’s report. Listen to the episode, “From the Archive: Misleading Financial Aid,” here.

As always, thank you for reading, writing, and listening.