Future of Learning

What makes education innovation succeed?

An education nonprofit argues it comes down to five conditions

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What does it take to make educational innovation succeed? Schools are constantly trying new things to improve student outcomes. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get a strong start, but too often they peter out.

Transcend, a nonprofit that advises educators in the process of transforming their schools, has been testing and refining what it takes to achieve sustainable change, and just published a list of the five conditions it believes are necessary for innovation to flourish: conviction, clarity, capacity, coalition and culture.

The 5Cs, as they’re called, present a holistic approach to laying the groundwork for successful school transformation. First comes conviction, that change is needed and that the specific transformation plan can achieve it. Next is clarity, about the school’s current context, the goals of the change and the strategy for achieving them. Capacity seems obvious, but important: schools should ensure there is enough money, staff expertise, and time to dedicate to the initiative. Change should be supported by a coalition of committed leaders, educators, families and community members. The final “C,” culture, refers to being learner-centered, allowing risk-taking, prioritizing continuous improvement, and offering opportunities for collaboration.

Tyler Thigpen, a partner at Transcend, said the nonprofit hopes the framework both grows the supply of successful school models and increases demand for them.

“Our mission is supporting communities to build and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments,” Thigpen said.

Though Transcend recommends school leaders pay attention to all of these conditions, the nonprofit is continuing to study them, and hopes to gather enough evidence to say which ones are most important and how they’re connected.

Transcend isn’t the only organization trying to crystallize the core elements of success in educational innovation. KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit that, among other things, advocates for personalized, competency-based education, identified three essential elements of successful new school models: 1) Exceptionally strong vision, created with input from school leaders, teachers, students, parents, community members and school partners. 2) A collaborative culture that empowers individuals and encourages risk-taking. 3) Complete transparency about what is expected of students and what roles adults in and out of school should play in working toward the vision.

Virgel Hammonds, chief learning officer for KnowledgeWorks, said schools tend to rely on educators to do all the work, but that far-reaching changes to schools come when the wider community is involved.

“It’s amazing to see not just a level of buy-in but a level of commitment that’s made across the community,” Hammonds said.

The recommendations from these nonprofits overlap. Both sets emphasize collaborative change efforts rather than top-down mandates, widespread support for the initiatives, and a focus on fostering a culture that supports innovation – with all the ups and downs it tends to entail. And both organizations argue that school leaders should set the right foundation from the start, no matter what type of ambitious innovation they attempt. The Conditions for Innovation Framework describes the “5Cs” as the fertile soil that nurture whatever initiative is planted.

Importantly, the recommendations offer school leaders a north star to come back to along the way, making sure innovation can continue to flourish.

“We’ve seen conditions change over time and get strengthened or challenged,” Thigpen said. “We believe they need to be attended to at every step.”

This story about educational innovation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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