What To Look For At The “Innovative” School Offering You A Job

Combing through Edjoin and Craigslist has become a daily enjoinder to wonder what “innovative” as related to  education means. 

The idea surrounding innovation as a common term became more fascinating after I heard John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell on World Affairs (KQED) do a mini analysis of their book The Godfather Doctrine  –    A Foreign Policy Parable.   When I listened to how they were able to use the movie and characters, as well as actor qualities in their metaphor,  I thought about how Judy Estrin posed a parable for our innovation gap.  Ms. Estrin uses  Silicon Valley entrepreneurship as the standard bearer for innovation in math and science. She does not mince words about what innovation looks like and what it does not look like.  Ms. Estrin elucidates towards the end of the book what innovation should look like in education.  It is any wonder the word innovation is bantered about like last weeks new-new thing by people who have not been in it up to their elbows and knees.  It is a word filled with mystique and yet not institutionally practiced any more.

In addition, I would like experienced and new teachers to realize that when you go on an interview at a school, you have the right to interview the school.  Teachers put in extraordinary hours at the site and often in isolation with their students – it is important that you feel this is a career you want to put your full energies into and make it a long term effort.  Development work, which is often the case of charter schools, takes on the short side, two-five years, much like development work in a third world country.  The first year is spent getting to know the lay of the land and surviving – the second year is when processes can actively be put in place and growth starts on the third or later years.  Anything faster than that rate is not development work which will have any staying power – development can not be rushed, no matter what the metrics for success are.

A large mistake charter schools make is that they promise something to a community.  It may not actually be the thing the community wants or even knows how to use and it is the reason why so many charter schools fail to get the community volunteering and on board at a particular school site. 

  Anyone who has done authentic development work knows that you or your group do not bring something to the community, rather, you are offering your best efforts and skills to help the community enact their wishes. Anything other than that is really acting on your own wishes/behalf,  somewhat in the way the U.S. has exported democracy to the middle east during the Bush years.

  Below the ad culled from one such review, I will share some pieces from “Closing The Innovation Gap” by Judy Estrin in which she talks about an education system which encourages true learning by doing and experimenting/creating valuable failure to learn from as well as businesses (employers) which allow employees to innovate.   What you might see as innovative by Silicon Valley Standards is startling when compared to the concept useage in education.

Ex:  http://sfbay.craigslist.org/eby/edu/1190420809.html

Reply to:see below
Date: 2009-05-26, 4:57PM PDT

You want your students to succeed in school and in life. Want to work at a school that does, too?

RISE can help.

Partner Schools in the RISE Network prepare students growing up in poverty to succeed in college and beyond. Now accepting applications for the 2009-2010 school year, grades 6-12: math, biology, chemistry, physics, and general science. Teachers who will be successful at RISE Partner Schools are experienced using a variety of instructional techniques and find fulfillment in helping historically under-served students to achieve at high levels.

The RISE Network directly connects you with 20 local schools serving grades 6-12 and gives you information about each school’s demographics and current academic performance. In addition, you’ll get insight from the school principal and teachers at the school about what it’s like to work there. The RISE Network is most helpful for teachers who have a love of teaching and learning, and who wish to join an innovative school team.

Schools are located in Oakland, San Jose, East Palo Alto and San Francisco.

Candidates should have:

  • a single-subject teaching credential (or be enrolled in a credentialing program with expected completion by August 2009)
  • at least one year of recent full-time teaching experience in a low-income school in the United States (this cannot include student or substitute teaching)
  • ability to work in the United States without visa sponsorship
  • a belief that all students can achieve at high levels
  • a strong desire to be part of a team building better public schools

Multiple-subjects candidates with experience teaching math and science at the middle school level may be considered for middle school positions. Get more information and apply online at www.risenetwork.org/teacher-overview.aspx.

Ask a question online at www.risenetwork.org/teacher-request-info.aspx.

  • Compensation: Depends on experience, competitive with local districts
  • Principals only. Recruiters, please don’t contact this job poster.
  • Please, no phone calls about this job!
  • Please do not contact job poster about other services, products or commercial interests.

PostingID: 1190420809

p. 32-33 of Closing The Innovation Gap

This section of the book regards the capacity within an organization for change or the willingness to innovate.

“There are half a dozen words in the English language that are substitutes for substance.  Three of them are innovation, accountability, and leadership,” says retired Intel CEO Andy Grove. “Companies that let people get away with murder talk too much about accountability.  Those that don’t have the courage to leave the handrail talk incessantly about leadership. And people who are incapable of changing what they are doing, or even analyzing what’s wrong, go on and on about innovation.”  Innovation is not just another pat phrase with little meaning beyond the latest hot start-up.  We need real, sustainable innovation, which can come only with courage on the part of leadership and an Ecosystem tha is in balance.

If teaching to the test is an accountability issue, that is not innovation.  If your prospective school will not let you walk away from the handrail (i.e. you must use the assigned literacy, math, science kit, etc. and specifically do direct instruction),  this is not innovation.  If your school is not offering any other metric than standardized test scores or API comparison, especially on its web site, that is not innovation as clearly all regualr public schools and charter schools are doing this same thing.

p. 77-78   of Closing The Innovation Gap

This section deals with the concepts of efficiency.   It is a short two page portion of history in how America began to develop an innovation gap.      A management technique called Six Sigma,

….a highly disciplined methodology for eliminating defects through precise measurement and control- was hailed as the way to improve quality levels in manufacturing.

You will notice this concept applied to education in the form of teaching to the test and working to effectively eliminate the defect of filling in the wrong bubble on the test answer form, which could cost the school points when standardized test scores are released. 

Advances in IT provided instantaneous access to detailed information about all aspects of business, enabling leaders to drive short-term incremental innovation in their internal proccesses – and in their products.  The role of chief information officer was elevated as companies recognized the importance of having access to up-to-the-minute data.

You need to replace the word business with standardized test taking preparation, products with students and companies with principals.

But many companies offering products based on science or technology were now being run by professional managers with legal, financial, or sales backgrounds who had little understanding of, or respect for, science itself.

Replace the word products with students and managers with principals.  Remember, science was not part of standardized testing until about two years ago so it was not and is still not necesssarily considered a subject worth full academic pursuit at public and charter schools.   



There were many hidden costs of the focus on short-term efficiency.  Organizations lost their tolerance for anything that couldn’t be managed through the metrics dashboard on the executive’s desktop PC.  Innovation can be a messy and inefficient process; it’s not one that can be managed through simple metrics.

Replace organizations with schools and executive with principal.  Viola’, you can see where the ‘data’ aspect of test scores became the mantra.

It’s hard to think broadly and go beyond incremental improvements when the mantra of the organization is focus, focus, focus.  “The very process of a company becoming good at its business is often a process of driving out the unknowns and the uncertainties.” says Applied Minds cofounder Danny Hillis.  “Lots of people have gotten much better at getting the slop out of the system.  Unfortunately, that slop was where a lot of the innovation was happening.  It provided the openness to look for new opportunities.”

Incremental improvements would be test scores while unknowns and uncerntainties would be the problems with not understanding standardized test taking language.  Slop out of  the system in schools = teach to the test.  The slop that should have been left in, but could not be measured by the principals narrow metrics would be the innovation.

p. 89-90  of Closing The Innovation Gap

This section deals with the narrowing focus of businesses, economy and how we as a society valued or disvalued what was going on around us.

The speed at which everything was moving affected not just people’s time horizon, but also the depth of their insight.  We created a generation of Power Point addicts who spend their time creating bullet points, animations, and graphics to dazzle the audience, instead of providing thought and analysis.  Form replaced substance.  PowerPoint became the method by which we think, rather than a tool to summarize and communicate our thinking to others.  Critical decisions were made every day without the depth of analysis that the issues deserved.  And in this shift, we began training ourselves to think in bullet points and sound bites.

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/28/33kline.h28.html?tkn=MR[FGdZ5E89DWWt96myOTEYcEq%2FSIvOZ4LbJ  (This is from Edweek and not in Closing the Innovation Gap)

This is the period of time when the charter school revolution came into full swing and during this time period test scores were presented in Power Point (and are still used today on any charter school website to demonstrate standardized and API growth).  If you go to any web site, you will not see thoughtful analysis about what the scores mean – you will not see it in the annual reports of charter schools. You will see a manipulation of statistics which does not elucidate the turn over of students or teaching staff or ‘tools’ used to obtain the metrics.  This, by any definition, would not be innovation. Watch out for beautiful and shiny things which seem too pretty….

p. 135, 137  of Closing The Innovation Gap

This section deals with incentives given to employees.

“If you overimpose metrics, you sacrifice creativity and open thinking,” says Joost CEO Mike Volpi. ” You have to be thoughtful about how hard you drive those metrics, because they can be innovation killers.”  Metrics -driven bonuses are easy to implement and understand, and are effective when focusing on yearly financials and incremental improvements.  But they need to be complemented with programs that reward behaviors that are not measured in a spreadsheet, recognizing and rewarding value creation in addition to today’s revenue and profit.

In cultivating innovation, implicit signals from leaders are as important as explicit ones.

This translates into asking the school which you will work at how they will “incentivise” you.  If you get a bunch of percentages and metrics about your students test scores and parent ratings, etc. , be wary – it does not seem to be innovative, in fact, reading through this section of the book makes me think these incentives are counter productive, except, if the only measure you are registering is test scores.

p. 141  of Closing The Innovation Gap

This section deals with transplantation of ideas.

 Successful transplanting of innovation takes various forms.  It’s crucial to know when it’s the right time for a product to leave the lab and be produced in volume and sold.

Key to the success of a particular innovation is knowing when and how to integrate it into the organizational mainstream.

 When you are visiting schools you are interested in teaching at, look at and keep notes about how they are similar and different. If  all schools have college penants and name the class groupings based on where teachers went to college, this is not innovative if every school does it, rather, it is a common practice.

Following a particular math, science, literacy program because every other school is doing it would not be innovative – it is called being a follower based on what the marketing of each organization presented to your school. There really are only four to five text book publishers in the U.S.   Almost all text books are now written to state standards.  Innovation most likely is not found in a student text book, sadly.

p. 144-145, 222  of Closing The Innovation Gap

This book portion deals with the process of entrepreneurship as it was and is now currently viewed in Silicon  Valley.  It addresses how the idea of business methodology has changed to something less innovative.

“When hype and marketing took precedence over substance in the investment community, that really changed the tone of things, ” says entrepreneur Martin Eberhard. ” You wound up with business model innovation instead of product innovation.  But in the end, you have to have something to sell.”

Neuroscientist Jamshed Bharucha took a hard look at test-centric pedagogical methods in the Chronicle of Higher Education and came to the conclusion that an emphasis on rote drills and memorization will not provide the answers we need. “The more varied the learning context, the more likely it is that the learning will manifest itself in one’s thinking in the future-which is the object of education,” he wrote in 2008.  “We learn more effectively when we generate the material to be learned than when we passively receive it.”  At its best, our system promotes learning by giving students more choices among an array of diverse teaching and testing styles.  Let’s not trade off the ability to train our students to think broadly, frame questions, and collaborate for the sake of coming up with easy ways to benchmark their achievements.

Learning how to solve problems efficiently is at the heart of traditional science education, but students need to learn how to frame questions, not just answer them.  “The educational process focuses too much on solving existing problems, and does not focus enough on giving students the tools to define important problems themselves,” say scientist Peter Schultz.  This kind of learning is best taught in small groups with lots of discussion, and it requires teachers to act as facilitators as well as lecturers.

If you replace product with student and understand that a non-profit is still a business (charter schools), you will see how there has not necessarily been a useful business model for education.  In the above comment, the item that is marketed and sold are test scores.  Innovation would indicate something distinctly different  is being observed, measured, used as the mark of success at a school.  Look for that ‘other’ different idea, especially on the web site.  All public schools are expected to have sucessful students as measured by test scores and prepare students to enter college. Innovation would indicate that a school goes above and beyond the minimum all public schools in America are charged with accomplishing.

A test score does not edify a measure of learning and seems to be the least connected tool towards innovation.  Many schools advocate direct instructionteaching (I have heard from various principals, “It is all these kids understand and can follow because it is so structured.”), which is a form of drill, memorization and note taking if it is used as the entire methodology of delivery. Be certain to know how much directed instruction you will be expected to deliver.

Think back to college and how boring it was to ‘recieve’ a lecture.  It is equally boring to ‘deliver’ a lecture, especially after doing the same lecture twice a day.  See to it that you are given some open range for project based learning and not merely end of year projects.

p. 153  of Closing The Innovation Gap

In this section, Ms. Estrin explores how we re-establish and/or re-invigorate our innovation ecosystem.  What do we need to do in education, in how we conduct business and how we leverage math and science.

“We outinnovate much of the rest of the world largely because we are free to do so,” says Intuit’s Scott Cook.  “People can reach their own creative potential and not be constrained.”  As we look to set policy or improve education, we must recognize these unique strengths and not rush to merely imitate what other countries are doing.  Educational systems that work in a more structured society may stifle the creativity and cognitive liberty that produced decades of innovation here at home.

Make sure the school you are interested in teaching at has a broader philosophy than stating, the _________blank are doing it so it seems to work.  It is great to use techniques in a different methodology appropriate for innovation, not to copy without questions because some other group achieved certain test scores.

p. 191  of Closing The Innovation Gap

Within this section of the book, the concept of return on investment is explored financially and in other, not immediately commidifiable forms.

Industry-university relations have historically been very transactional.  Corporations provide funding or equipment; universitites train future employees and generate new ideas.  At Stanford, Ellen Levy experimented with pushing these relationships to a more collaborative level.  In trying to move the players beyond simple transactions like donations of money or licensing of ideas, she came up with what she calls her “ROI model,” which is a clever way of thinking about where we need to go.   She found that industry partners are always making decisions based on their return on investment -something that universities and government agencies don’t generally focus on.  “I came up with the notion that ROI, like everything else, needs to be translated,” Levy explains.  “In industry, ‘ROI’ means return on investment.  But for the university, it could mean research of interest, and for government, it could mean results of importance.  Each participant is driven by ROI – just not by the ROI that the others think is at work.”

Be sure to find out the funding for your school, especially at a charter school. What do the donors expect as ROI – is it test scores? If so, that would not qualify as an innovative ROI.  It seems that donated money, especially to charter schools, should be crafted to expect something truly unique and add something to the research spectrum. 

It is sad to realize our own government sees test scores as results of importance….

p. 200  of Closing The Innovation Gap

How do we, as citizens, ask for and measure innovation in K-12 education?

In recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to the state of our country’s K-12 educational system, but when viewed through the lens of innovation, our policy decisions, leadership structure, and funding have not been aligned for success.  We are so busy administering standardized tests that we have forgotten that a test score does not always correlate with real assessment and learning.  We are not making the right investments in developing new curricula and refining teaching methods.  We require a better understanding of how kids learn, and more accurate tools to diagnose problems and measure true progress.  We are drowning in rivers of statistics comparing test results to past performance or to scores from other countries, but we still haven’t clearly identified our needs or framed the questions that we should be asking about education.  We are so caught up in the numbers that we have lost our focus on teaching.  It is hard to argue with the goal of having every American child graduate from college – unless trying to achieve that goal is at the expense of those who may be better suited for a different path to success.

Most charter schools do exactly what is stated in the above paragraph – compare test scores from last year to this year and use it as their barometer of innovation as indicated by the job advertisement at the start of this blog.  RISE hires teachers for charter schools, specifically those which, as the ad states, are innovative.   Look past the test scores. It appears RISE may be using the word innovation out of context.

In fact, it might be interesting to ask the school you are interviewing at what the  graduation rates  are of their past students who have graduated college (see blog https://whereiskatima.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=318).  Thus far, I have not been able to obatain any information on the subject which indicates that getting kids through HS is the goal of all schools.  I truly believe any charter school worth its mettle would be pleased to show the graduation from college percentages if it helped their marketing.

p. 202-207  of Closing The Innovation Gap

This section of the book creates an outline of what an innovative school might look like.

Much of the discussion of  education reform today focuses specifically on math and science education, which is in great need of improvement.  These also happen to be subjects that appear easily testable, with multiple-choice questions yielding quantifiable benchmarks.  But we also have to educate our kids to think outside the box-or outside the bubble on the testing sheet.  We will certainly need more well-trained scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to fuel the Innovation Ecosystem, but the reach of the Ecosystem extends beyond math, science, and engineering in the arts and humanities, as well as other vocations.

As citizens, we need to become more informed about the issues affecting our lives. Many Americans are unable to evaluate public policy issues critically and make the right choices for themselves and for the country.  In a 2006 NSF survey, more than one third of the adult population didn’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun, and more than half were unaware that antibiotics kill only bacteria and not viruses.  To live and work effectively in today’s world requires a basic level of scientific and technological understanding that exceeds what was required in past generations. “Citizens need to be information literate,” says VC john Doerr. “You need to be able to read and write, buy you also need the ability to manipulate symbols in the broadest sense.”  We cannot explicitly teach people to make good decisions, but we can enhance their ability to ask the right questions, listen, and evaluate.

The overriding need in education now is not increasing third-grade test scores, but preparing our children for their work and lives in the future.  This is not just the responsibility of our educational system, but also parents, the country’s leaders, the media, and every individual who influences the culture in which we live.

As Carl Sagan said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

To find the best answers to these questions, we will need to try a variety of approaches, ensuring that we collect the right data to assess and adapt while not stifling learning by applying metrics of questionable value.  The answers will depend on leadership from parents, legislators, principals, superintendents, and local school boards.  But most of all, they will require great teachers.

Make sure when you look at bulletin board and student work at the school you want to teach at, you see questions in the upper ends of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  All the test scores in the world are not innovative data.

You can be sure you have struck gold if you find yourself being interviewed for your job by a parent; this generally indicates the parent community is actively involved in the school.

p. 207-219  of Closing The Innovation Gap

Professional Development- These pages discuss the crux of the pay debate, the issue of education as a respectable profession and treating educators as professionals.

In particular, p. 213-214 looks at how education is mandated and delivered today versus how education can be innovative. 

There is nothing in this section of the book which anyone in education has not heard before – the only difference is it is being a stated by a very knowledgeable woman deeply involved with the inner workings of Silicon Valley and who knows what innovation produces.  It is perhaps the most compelling part of the book in attuning yourself to how you can identify an innovative environment.

Look carefully at how you are compensated.  Being paid 10% more than the going rate can almost almost mean working more than 50% harder than any other teacher, especially at a starting out charter school. You will wear many hats and the compensation, including benefits, do not compensate you in the same way some one who puts in the same efforts in a start up company.  The process of education is not a business – do not assume the benefits you are told about are even useable.  You may get vacation and/or sick time you never get to use, especially if your school is non-union (this is often a little hidden secret in charter schools and is part of the incredible staff turnover).

Ask what professional development was done the previous year and what you can look forward to this coming year. Make sure the professional development is professional subject pedagogy and not time wasted in classroom management.

p. 224-225  of Closing The Innovation Gap

This particular section deals with why we need to expect innovative environments where we teach.

One of the ways we can encourage students to study science, technology, engineering, and math is by making sure that they are aware of the burgeoning job opportunities in these areas.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the science and engineering workforce will grow at nearly double the rate of other occupations through 2014.  Even for those who decide that they don’t want a career in technology or research, a solid education in science and math lays the groundwork for many other opportunities, including those in business.  “The best entrepreneurs are those who have a background in science, engineering, or medicine, not a business background,” says SRI’s Curtis Carlson. ” You want to add the business on top of the science and engineering, not the other way around.”

It is reasonable to research your principal and find out their background and how they became a principal. What is their undergraduate degree in? How long did they teach – in what environmments (public, private, charter, urban, inner city)? Did they go through a summer ‘bootcamp’ program or do they have time on their side as their experience?  How do they view the value of money versus results (ex: raise test scores or doing projects which enhance learning)?.

An innovative school has an innovative leader – one who is willing to ask the big questions and not merely follow the status quo.  It takes a mature, experienced leader to do this. Find out about your principal by asking to talk to teachers who are staying and students.  Ask what the teachers like about the principal, their follow through, changes in direction they have noticed and observed that reflect innovation.

p. 229  of Closing The Innovation Gap

The last paragraph/final thoughts:  All the ammunition you need to find an innovative school to teach at and ignore the rest which use the word incorrectly.

When it comes to communicating the message that science and innovation are crucial for our future, our culture is even more broken than our schools.  We need to recognize that we will not be able to stay this shortsighted and win.  We’re living our lives like day traders, when we need to be making long-term investments in our nation’s future.  Our children and grandchildren are worth it. 

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/06/02/christensen.schools/index.html  This article appeared today as I was finishing this blog.

 And for even less innovation, but more marketing:

Ideas For Improving Education Proposed.


Derek Thompson wrote at the Business blog for The Atlantic (6/10) on “10 Crazy Ideas for Fixing Our Education System” such as longer school days, shorter summer vacations, more bilingual education, a higher compulsory education age, eliminating the SAT, ending tenure, differential tuition charges for college majors, basing college loan repayment on income, US Department of Education rankings of colleges and Charles Murray’s proposal for skill certifications to reduce the need for four year college programs. Each of his proposals is matched with a brief explanation and defense of the ideas, some of which he seems to think are good ideas despite his initial characterization.



7 thoughts on “What To Look For At The “Innovative” School Offering You A Job

  1. Very nice post.Really interesting and well written article. novices and experts alike will both pick up a lot of tips and ideas from reading that

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