Federalism supports a national culture of innovation, particularly in education

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Lyall Swim

Editor’s note: This is the final article in a series that outlines some foundational principles for successful adoption of innovative education reforms.

When the founding fathers advocated for principles of federalism, they weren’t thinking that this philosophy of governance was going to be great for innovation. Rather, based on their writings, the push for the tenets of federalism was to create a system of checks and balances within the government that ensured that power was diffused and the threats of tyranny were minimized.

However, it turns out that federalism and the separation of powers isn’t just good governance policy. As implemented in the American experiment, federalism has become a tremendous way to create a culture of innovation for a broad range of policy areas—particularly for education.

One of the most important and visible findings from my doctoral research on innovation adoption was that the type of innovation dictates where an innovation is most likely to be successfully adopted. In many ways, this aspect of innovation follows the number one rule of real estate: location, location, location.

In education reform, our federalist government structure naturally creates four distinct locations, or levels—federal, state, district, and school—that can be matched with the four types of innovation—incremental, modular, architectural, and radical. Table 1 lays out these relationships.

Table 1: Innovation types and corresponding locations

Innovation type





Area where innovation most likely to be successful





As a quick review from the first post of this series, incremental innovation builds or simply extends the current service or way of doing things. Modular innovation makes a significant change to a particular product or service but doesn’t change the overall delivery or use of a product or service. Architectural innovation makes a major change to the actual structure and nature of the product. And radical innovation creates a totally new paradigm and often makes the old way of doing things obsolete.

As we think about education reform, this innovation principle is crucial for education researchers, practitioners, and reformers. If we mismatch a particular innovation with the wrong location, we run the risk of killing the innovation.

Why does the federalism approach work? My research suggests two reasons—autonomy and measurement.

For incremental innovation to be effective and bring a return on investment, it needs to be implemented across a broad base and done in a standard way. There isn’t a lot of room for autonomy. For this reason, incremental innovation lends itself to reform that can be driven at either the state or federal level.

On the flip side, the more an education innovation falls into the architectural or radical category, the more innovators need the ability to make local decisions, have the flexibility to change the innovation, or to adapt quickly to rapidly evolving needs. This level of autonomy is best realized at the district or individual school level, where a superintendent or principal has the authority and autonomy to adopt an innovation without being hamstrung by election cycles, special interest groups, or layers of bureaucracy. This notion of autonomy is one of the driving principles behind charter schools and their ability to operate outside of the system and try radical ideas to see if they work.

The second area where the federalist structure strengthens a culture of innovation is in the area of measurement. For incremental innovations, measurement standards are well established and actually function as the innovations’ driving force. One example is the move toward adaptive standardized testing, which requires a broad base of inputs—i.e., administered tests—that enable valid comparisons between students, schools, policies, etc. If every school were constantly experimenting with new assessments, such evaluation would be impossible.

However, as you move toward radical innovation at the other end of the spectrum, established measurement systems can actually stifle or even kill innovation. In fact, based on my doctoral research, one of the surest ways to kill architectural or radical innovation is to saddle those innovations with the measurement systems of the status quo. This is one of the challenges facing competency-based learning. This disruptive type of learning can’t be measured by seat time, current pacing guides, or century-old Carnegie units. We need to develop a whole new way to measure success.

America is a world leader in innovation, and as we seek to apply that innovation expertise to education—one of the most critical challenges facing our country today—we cannot ignore the fundamental principles of innovation and innovation adoption that this four-part series of posts has outlined. If we heed these lessons, however, we can succeed in creating a system that meets the needs of each child and prepares our students for the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.

Dr. Lyall J. Swim is the managing partner at Junto Strategy.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.