Innovation Q & A with Gene Wilhoit

Gene Wilhoit is Executive Director of the National Center for Innovation in Education, former

Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and former Kentucky Commissioner of Education. At CTL’s 20th Anniversary forum, he participated in a panel discussion of the ideas generated by forum participants on Inventing the Next 20 Years through Equity, Innovation and Systems Change. He graciously agreed to respond to follow-up questions about innovation in education—what it is, and how to achieve it.


Q: How would you characterize the current challenges in education with regard to innovation?

 The general issue across the country is that we find pockets of excellence, yet we don’t see systematic movement of these ideas to a larger scale, to the point that it impacts the way students experience learning. There are so many impediments in the system right now…It’s not a simple task.

For example, we talk about providing students with a whole array of opportunities to improve their reading skills, and yet we haven’t provided the rich diagnostic tools to make it possible for teachers to make an accurate diagnosis of the situation. We often leave it to the teacher alone to figure that out. We don’t have as high a quality of intervention strategies that we need. We often rely on publishing products rather than theory of practice…and then we move students along whether or not they’ve mastered that, so we can’t make a shift toward competency based learning.

We’ve got great ideas. It just seems like when we get to implementation, we are not using sound practices to put those ideas in place…I don’t think I’s a problem of the ideas; it’s primarily implementation and all the pieces of structure, procedure, lack of training and support structures around it. We don’t pay enough attention (to the support teachers need to do a high quality job).


Q: What are the central questions educators should be asking to pave the way for innovation that facilitates positive change in schools?

We’ve done just about done everything possible to fix schools. What we’ve really got to think about is how do we enable dynamic learning for every child? When you ask that question, as opposed to how do we fix schools, about how we provide that important learning opportunity for every child, it leads you down a different pathway…It leads to this issue of (teacher) training. We’re trying to help (schools) think through what would be the high leverage points to put in place to help them make that possible.

We have to approach not just knowledge, but new skills and habits of mind that students need—like resilience, collaboration, cooperation and self-reliance. Then we can begin to aggregate that into learning progressions that are shared by all, and create a set of expectations around that. Once you do that, I ask (schools) to…think about how they accredit learning as opposed to seat time…How can we begin to think about making sure that students don’t fall behind, that they stay engaged and excited about learning? That leads me to this idea about proficiency-based or competency-based learning, how (students) can exhibit in meaningful ways that they have mastered the expectations, which leads to allowing those youngsters to progress forward—not holding them back, but not pushing forward until they exhibit learning. You can’t do that until…(you get to) personalization of learning…anytime, anywhere learning, moving learning out into the society, community-based, technology-based learning.

(And we also have to) look seriously at the support structures that are necessary for some of these kids to overcome the real problems that exist in their lives. Until they do, they will not be ready to engage in learning.


Q: How does what works at the local level scale up or translate to the state policy level?

 We find it’s really exciting at a local level. You can get your hands around this when you have responsibility for students. The real learning that comes out of the detail work at the local level (in turn) informs state policy. It shifts some of the state systems we have in place, like accountability and assessment design that states need to re-think so educators have a better chance of carrying these learning goals forward.


Q: Is there reluctance to innovate at all levels?

Oh yes. This is not easy work, and it is different work than a lot of people have been engaged in. People have to think through this. It has to make sense to them. It has to seem like a better way than what they’re doing. It has to seem likes it’s worthwhile…People are holding on to established practices and resisting trying something pretty bold. I can say this: While there is resistance, there is also a great deal of excitement among educators…They talk about it in terms of rejuvenating themselves, (and say it’s the most exciting works they’ve ever done).

The big challenge is that it’s not good enough to have a few places that are interested. Undergirding this is the desire on the part of folks to do what it takes— to believe that children can reach very high goals, that all of them can be successful.  If you don’t have that belief system then it’s very difficult to motivate. If you don’t have that internal pressure point on you to do better than we’re doing now for all kids, then it’s hard to motivate.


Q: What kind of leadership is necessary to implement innovative practices?

It’s important for leadership to exert itself in very positive ways, all the way from the (school) boards (to school, district and state administrators). There’s a huge difference between managing and leading a transformation. (It takes) a very different set of skills, and some people have those: A leader who is able to protect faculty and encourage them to move ahead, provide the resources for them…and re-design the learning opportunities that these teachers have. If…a faculty can see that kind of vision and support, and have the resources and time and support materials (they need), they can figure this out and move things forward.


Q: What is the role of community and parent engagement in implementing innovative practices?

The other part of it is, sometimes communities have to be educated about what we’re trying to do. Many times we don’t communicate as directly with communities and engage them in this process as much as we should. If that’s the case, and they don’t understand what you’re trying to do, and they don’t see the need for this, then there’s resistance and sometimes well meaning efforts on the part of professionals are undercut by resistance in the community.

I encourage schools (not to move forward) without some aspect of direct community engagement. For example …I think every community should have an open forum where the community is engaged very directly. When the community and the professional educators can agree on a direction, it makes it so much better to move forward, and once you begin that effort we need to “demand” from parents that they’re very engaged in the learning process. But to do that, they have to know where you’re going, they have to know why things are important, they have to know why they have to be a part of this. They’re not teachers, but they (can provide support and set expectations in the home). But sometimes they need some help figuring that out.


Q: Overall, are you optimistic that schools can truly become more innovative in their approaches to teaching and learning?

 I’m very optimistic because I think people are figuring out that we have to do things a little better than we have to this point. There’s a sense of urgency about the need for change. I feel optimistic because I see some local professionals that get into this work and get so excited that they tell me they don’t want to go back to what they were doing.

I’m beginning to see publishers produce (better) materials than they have historically. I’m  beginning to see professional development change from the individualized, pre-determined course structure to  professional learning communities.

Kentucky was out there in front—many of these ideas had to percolate. We had to learn; we had to make adjustments and change. There’s more of a broad-based conversation now than there was when I was (Kentucky education) commissioner. I still think we have major issues to address. It’s still not clear in my mind whether it would be easier in a state like Kentucky, where we have a rich history of these things, or in a state where they are approaching this for the first time. We have to make sure this is not perceived as warmed-over stuff. We have better supports now than we had before.

I think at a local level, it’s really important for a faculty in a community to find time to engage in these serious conversations. I don’t see how people can move forward unless there’s a general agreement about where they’re going, what they want for the students, what are they particularly going to provide for youngsters. Reaching a consensus around that and then providing opportunities for faculty to engage in an ongoing deep conversation (about how we get there is essential).

Sometimes in this country we set the vision and then we test it, but we overlook this really critical piece—developing a curriculum, instructional materials, professional capacity, resourcing. All those things have to come together in a coherent way in order for this to catch hold.

( has to be some) hand holding, outside support, and unbiased perspective about how people can get better. Building this continuous improvement expectation in a district is so important

These are exciting times, these are fun times. I realize that it’ll be more work, but it’s not dull, routine, compliance sort of work. There’s an opportunity now to really get excited and get engaged and help students with their lives, and where they want to go and how to get there. When (students get to move forward in their lives), that’s the reward that comes out of all that. It’s hard work, but it’s engaging—and it has its rewards.

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