Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Amy Stornaiuolo


This study examines the history of “innovation” as a lever for urban public school reform in Philadelphia and the ways this layered discourse inflects the practice and instruction of literacy in a new, non-selective high school organized on principals of “making” and “design thinking.” Drawing on sociocultural theories of literacy and science and technology studies, the project traces the changing meanings of “innovation” – from its rise in Cold War technoscientific R&D initiatives to its present associations with STEM and entrepreneurship – and follows them as they are integrated into the day-to-day dynamics of classrooms. To do so, it grounds this history in the Philadelphia context, from the 1967 founding of the district Office of Innovative Programs to the present-day proliferation of schools in the city’s Innovation Network. The study interrogates (1) how the discourse of “innovation” circulates in and across these spaces, (2) from what lineages these configurations of “innovation” emerge, and (3) how teachers and students work to reconcile these notions of “innovation” with their own purposes for literacy teaching and learning.

Drawing on archival research related to the design and construction of University City High School – the district’s first new construction “innovation” school – and nine-months of ethnographic data collection in the asynchronous, technology-driven humanities classroom of a present-day Innovation School, the project considers how resonances from past waves of “innovative” reform persist over time, as well as how certain frictions and modes of resistance are rendered unavailable as the discourse of “innovation” takes on new meanings. In particular, the study elucidates a vibrant history of protest in the 1960s as parents, teachers, students, community organizations, business leaders, and district officials battled over competing uses of “innovative” reform – some stressing interventions that provided resources for children and augmented instruction (innovation-for-education) and some emphasizing the value of education reform for enacting urban renewal programs to solidify Philadelphia’s place as a hub of “innovation” (education-for-innovation). Importantly, the study illuminates how, in its contemporary formation, these contested meanings still exist, but are often conflated in the anodyne practices of “making,” “design,” “autonomous learning,” and “social entrepreneurship.” The project elucidates how these contradictions exert competing pressures on students and teachers, and uses interviews, artifacts, field notes, and classroom audio recordings to examine the ways they take up, resist, or rework, and adapt to these pressures, with varying degrees of success.

The study’s overarching findings point to ways “innovative” reforms often draw on and reconfigure old practices for new purposes, sometimes to contradictory ends. Further, it suggests that the discourse of “innovation” might better serve its purpose if reoriented toward maintenance – the on-the-ground infrastructures that are necessary to support those who are made vulnerable by “innovative” programs, and to sustain public education to better support the goal of equitable student flourishing for all. To do so, the project suggests, there is need to wrest “innovation” from the scale of scientists, policymakers, and technology entrepreneurs, and to relocated in the lived dynamics of classrooms – a reorientation with implications for research, policy, and practice.

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