Although educational innovation is stifled by regulations and bureaucracy, the biggest roadblocks are the lack of incentives and the overriding political influence of special interest groups fighting to preserve the status quo. Yet, there is hope.

This weekend, the New York Times (NYT) posted their favorite picks among videos sent in by teachers on how they use technology in the classroom. The inspiring stories range from using social media to engage students in discussing class material amongst each other and in collaboration with students in other countries, to economizing on math instruction by enabling students to watch tutorials online at home so that valuable class time can be spent on problem-solving practice. Unfortunately, these examples are rare despite the overwhelming role that technology skills play in today’s economy.

Last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Center for American Progress, and the American Enterprise Institute joined forces to prepare Leaders and Laggards, a state-by-state report card on educational innovation. IWF’s Vicky E. Murray commented on the report, suggesting that the poor scores were partially a result of the political needs of adults trumping students’ needs. The report reiterates the glum state of educational innovation:

[.] as businesses have revolutionized their practices, “student achievement has remained stagnant and our K-12 schools have stayed remarkably unchanged-preserving, as if in amber, the routines, culture, and operations of a 1930s manufacturing plant.” 

Some states score better than others. This summer, Reason magazine, featured an article on Teachers Unions vs. Online Education, highlighting the success of Florida Virtual Schools (FLVS) in achieving performance results as good as or better than state averages on any measure at a fraction of the costs. One reason, FLVS was able to successfully compete for state funds, despite teachers unions fierce opposition to virtual schools, is that the program is set up as supplemental to physical schools. The article reports:

Founder Julie Young went out of her way not to antagonize teachers unions or disparage traditional schools. “From day one, what we tried to do was design FLVS so that it was not competitive with the schools, but complementary,” she says. 

Some fear that the use of technology makes it too easy for students to get distracted and that it discourages the development of focus. The NYT article Growing Up Digitally, Wired for Distraction tells many disturbing stories of students’ endless habitual texting and how some of them are falling behind in school because they lack the focus to do their homework, which encourages such thinking.

However, the featured teachers, in the NYT series on how digital devices are changing the way we think and live, demonstrate how the use of technology in education can engage students and can give them technical skills without compromising deep analytical thought.

Using technology in education is a promising innovation to improve student performance. However, its potential is stifled by the lack of incentives and opposition to innovation in traditional schools. Public school teachers that bridge the gap can serve as powerful role models. Additionally, we need to increase funding for private school vouchers and charter schools, who are better at innovating because they are not tied down by teachers unions and face more powerful incentives to compete for student tuition, and to prepare students for the 21st century.