Patience is a virtue, and it’s critical for innovation

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Lyall Swim

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series that will outline some foundational principles for successful adoption of innovative education reforms. The next post will explain the why political campaigns and innovation don’t mix.

Full disclosure: Patience is not a virtue that I’m anywhere close to mastering. This is not from a lack of effort. I’ve tried to work on being more patient at several points in my life, but the results just didn’t come fast enough. I often felt like the man who prayed, “Lord bless me with patience, and do it now.”

Yet I’m not alone in this struggle. We live in a society that promotes, expects, and thrives on getting things done immediately, if not yesterday.

That urge is even stronger when it comes to things like improving education or health care. When we look around and see children that are being robbed of their futures because the current education system has failed them and reforms continue to stall, we want and need results now. In these instances, patience seems less like a virtue and more like a roadblock.

When it comes to the adoption of education innovation, however, patience isn’t just nice to have—it’s critical.

Wonks’ term for the process by which an innovative goes from being an abstract idea to achieving mass adoption is innovation diffusion.” Countless studies have proven that this is a repeatable process with clear adoption steps and distinct types of adopters—which, when skipped, significantly decreases an innovation’s chance of success.

In the education reform universe, one of the most common ways impatience rears it’s ugly head is when an idea from an individual, agency, elected official, or think tank succeeds early on in improving educational outcomes. Rather than allowing that innovation to prove successful over time, they jump the gun and run to the state or federal government to get the idea mandated so that “full adoption” happens immediately. Yet no matter how good one thinks a reform is, it’s unlikely to defy the laws of innovation. 

We education reformers should therefore heed the critical steps that permit, for example, the emergence of various modifications or tweaks that improve adoption, leading to a critical tipping point wherein a given innovation is no longer “fringe” but naturally becomes “mainstream” with the help of a broad group of stakeholders and key opinion leaders, who didn’t come up with the idea but start to take ownership and drive adoption.  

When it comes to architectural or radical innovation—the kinds of innovation that truly have the potential to transform a system—these steps are especially critical.

In 2007, I was part of a group of think tanks, politicians, and other advocacy groups that fell victim to impatience and set an education innovation in Utah back almost a decade.

After a multi-year effort, we successfully got the Utah legislature to pass a transformative architectural innovation: a universal voucher program for every student, called the Parent Choice in Education Act. Other voucher bills had passed both in Utah and around the country, but our program was the first of its kind to essentially offer all Utah children a scholarship to attend the school of their choice. It was a major victory for choice and choice advocates. But just a few months after its passage, Utah voters, in a referendum, overturned the measure by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

How could an overwhelmingly Republican state that prided itself on being conservative reject so decisively a measure that seemed to align with Republican principles?

Several factors contributed to the loss, but one of the most overlooked was that Utah, more so than other states, had a very small percentage (around 6 percent at the time) of students who were being educated outside the public school system. From an innovation diffusion standpoint, the state had barely begun reaching early adopters of school choice. This meant that the idea of a universal voucher program was too far outside the norm and too radical in nature for the remaining Utahans—which constituted the remaining 90-plus percent of the population—to see it as anything but a threat.

The lessons from our failure in Utah are especially important to heed because the steps we skipped essentially killed vouchers in the state. The whole topic became toxic. Only now, ten years later, are conversations being had to expand a small voucher program, the Carson Smith Scholarship, that was passed prior to our initiative.

At the end of the day, Utah was the wrong place to try passing a universal voucher program. Based on what we now know about the successful adoption of innovations, residents simply needed more time to acclimate to the idea of this non-traditional education policy. Reformers would do well to look at this example as an important reminder that, if we want to transform education, we might be well served to heed the words of the great philosopher, Axl Rose, and remember that, “All we need is a little patience.”

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.