Education Research in Philadelphia: What is Innovation?

Innovation is a word we hear constantly. It’s used to describe emerging technologies, new platforms through which people can engage with one another and— most significantly for my work—groundbreaking approaches to social issues. Yet it’s a word used so frequently that it’s beginning to lose some of its potency. My CPGC internship this summer is at an education research organization, and in reading reports I frequently come across claims of innovation. It’s an exciting word, signifying originality and creativity. But how do we get beyond the hype?

Innovation is simple: according to Merriam-Webster, it is merely “the introduction of something new”.

Within this framework, my work this summer encounters innovation on a daily basis. I’m contributing to two projects at Research for Action, the larger of which is examining the implementation of the Social Innovation Fund, a White House initiative that funds grant-making intermediaries who in turn invest in community-based nonprofit organizations. In this way, the SIF combines the sheer force of government funding with the creativity, flexibility, and local knowledge of the nonprofit sector.  It’s truly an innovative approach to funding youth development and economic opportunity in the United States.

My other project, still in the early stages, will evaluate the Extended Learning Opportunities initiative in New Hampshire. ELOs are a central piece of New Hampshire’s effort to redefine student learning in terms of competency, rather than hours spent in the classroom. In this way, it has taken drastic steps to refocus the state’s education system on the student as an individual, with unique characteristics and learning needs. Again, this initiative is new and original: it’s innovative.

Despite my initial cynicism, I’ve come to realize that innovation is more than just a buzzword.