‘Innovation-Ready’ Graduates

Type: Article
Topics: College- Career- and Life-Readiness, Curriculum & Assessment, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2021

If workplace managers most desire creative problem solvers and imaginative thinkers, how are some schools reimagining student growth?
Tony Wagner
Tony Wagner
Sujata Bhatt
Sujata Bhatt

Most educators and families still think our students must be prepared for a “knowledge economy,” believing that the more knowledge a student has, the greater their competitive advantage. Employers, however, want to know whether or not a potential hire is “innovation-ready.”

Peter Drucker coined the phrase knowledge economy in 1969 at a time when a roomful of computers had far less computing power than a single smartphone, and there was no internet, no Google. But in the last 20 years, knowledge has increasingly become a mere commodity — growing exponentially, changing constantly and available to anyone around the world with even the simplest of internet devices.

When one of us (Tony) interviewed employers a decade ago for a book, Creating Innovators, corporate executives no longer were interested in how much prospective employees knew or whether they went to college. They cared far more about what students could do with what they knew — could they use knowledge creatively to solve a complex problem or create a new product or service?

Google, for example, used to only hire Ivy League graduates. But in a June 2013 New York Times interview, Laszlo Bock, then senior vice president of people operations at Google, said, “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He went on to say that the proportion of hires without any college education at Google was then about 14 percent. Just six years later in a March 2019 interview with Business Insider, Apple CEO Tim Cook said about half of Apple’s U.S. employment was made up of people who did not have a four-year degree.

And now we are beginning to learn just how much COVID-19 is dramatically impacting hiring trends. In writing for the World Economic Forum last November, tech entrepreneur Scott Belsky observed that many of the jobs that disappeared during the pandemic will be filled not by humans but by computers or artificial intelligence.

This Content is Exclusive to Members

AASA Member? Login to Access the Full Resource

Not a Member? Join Now | Learn More About Membership


Tony Wagner, Sujata Bhatt
About the Authors

Tony Wagner is a senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. His most recent book is Learning by Heart: An Unconventional Education.

Sujata Bhatt is an innovation consultant and the capstone director for the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s Education Entrepreneurship Program.

Jump-Starting Transformation With an Innovation Lead

When the Edgecombe County Public Schools in Tarboro, N.C., wanted to jump-start a transformation of the school district in 2016, the superintendent and school board began by creating a position called director of innovation for one of their most promising principals, Erin Swanson.

As the head of a global immersion school in the district, Swanson had proven herself adept at iteration, and Edgecombe’s superintendents — at first John Farrelly and then, since 2017, Valerie Bridges — knew they needed that agility. Bridges’ vision was to enable Edgecombe to become an ambidextrous organization, one that could manage schools in the here and now, as well as design for the future.

The future is the work of Innovation ECPS, led by Swanson. Bridges is careful to ensure that district staff understand the importance of both areas of work.

Edgecombe, with 5,400 students today, was a low-performing district for many years, though not uniformly across the system. Bridges explains, “Our community recognized that we needed to do something differently. Particularly on the north side we had a lot of challenges: classrooms without a permanent teacher multiple years in a row. We had a strong case for change.”

Swanson and Innovation ECPS began their work there focusing on equity and innovation, while other parts of the district continued to move along more traditional paths.

In partnership with families, students, teachers and the business community and supported by national redesign nonprofit Transcend, Swanson and her team developed and launched North Philips School of Innovation, a radically different student-centered micro school, whose model now has expanded both in its home school and across other parts of the district.

From that initial success, which Bridges celebrated both with the board and with the community, Innovation ECPS has expanded its role in the district, from supporting curriculum design to responding to the pandemic, always leading with innovation and equity. During the pandemic, they launched learning pods for students who did not have access to the internet.

Enabling Innovators

Bridges and Swanson helped us to identify five enablers that allow a district-level director of innovation or chief innovation officer to succeed:

  • Autonomy. The innovation lead should not be part of existing departments and should report directly to the superintendent. This shelters the innovation lead from day-to-day reactive work that other departments are responsible for and instead enables them to focus on the future.

  • Close collaboration with a limited number of schools. Innovation is complex, hands-on work. The opportunity to dig in with teams at specific schools and areas of the district allows the person in charge of innovation to develop strategy and skills, to prototype and pilot and quickly iterate as needed — before spreading or scaling.

  • Time and flexibility. Innovation leads may be out of the central office for chunks of time (Swanson, for example, still spends 20 hours a week working on North Phillips, even as it is scaling). It takes time and investment over a series of months and years to create proof points.

  • Connection to the community. The director of innovation has to build strong relationships with the community and bring the community into their design processes. Otherwise, people feel innovation is being done to them rather than with them.

  • Strong support from the superintendent. Bridges sees her role as providing a buffer between Innovation ECPS and the board, as well as messaging the equal importance of the innovation work and the day-to-day work of the district (the ambidextrous organization) so Swanson and her team can keep moving Edgecombe County toward the future.