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Innovation, creativity are keys to better schools

We know where to find Florida on national K-12 education rankings: near the bottom. Recently, we placed 36th in the 2005-2006 Education State Rankings by the Kansas-based Morgan Quitno Press and earned an F for our science standards from the Washington, D.C.-based Fordham Institute.

Our unflattering Fordham score - based on such criteria as quality, in which we netted 1.8 out of 9 points (imagine losing 90-18 in a basketball game) - stemmed to some degree from politics, according to the institute. In response to a national drive to inject intelligent design into science studies, we've diluted our evolution education, a key to unlocking an array of academic doors.

Politics also contribute to our lowly standings in reading and math. School boards often clash with the Florida Department of Education; Gov. Jeb Bush is trying to find a way around the state Supreme Court's recent crushing of his voucher programs; the FCAT has proved to be more of a political show than a teaching tool; we allow immigration to drag down our English scores; we fail to educate enough educators and thus continuously face a shortage; we've politicized and de-emphasized per-pupil spending, investing less than 46 states in the future; and so forth.

Yet it isn't politics that most endanger our ability to produce global-marketplace competitors. We get through much of that, more or less. We could even reach a compromise on intelligent design by teaching it in another discipline, possibly history. Our No. 1 problem is our inability to inspire innovation.

Innovation propels nearly every part of the American economy. It helps many U.S. companies in many ways: warding off competition, pumping billions of dollars (and euros, yen and other currencies) into their coffers, fortifying their international leadership positions and allowing them to dictate the rules of the games.

Innovation also strengthens and distinguishes America's higher education. It's mainly due to innovation that, according to China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the United States claims 17 of the world's top 20 universities.

In the late 1980s, many Americans, including respected financial experts, believed Japan stood on the brink of economic supremacy. But it never happened. Why? Because the Land of the Rising Sun bathed, as it still does, in America's rays of innovation.

Today, we hear similar chatter about China and India: If they make innovation inroads, they'll threaten America's eminence. They haven't, yet. The United States, meanwhile, boosts its productivity at the torrid rate of 2 to 4 percent a year. As it did in the 20th century, it out-innovates the whole world. Americans seem to have a hand in almost every innovation in technology, medicine and entertainment, among other areas.

We Floridians must do a far better job giving our children the opportunity to participate in the innovation economy. We should shift our focus from measuring results and requiring rigid standards to developing our young minds. The bad news is that we lag behind many states. The good news is that we don't necessarily need more money to catch up. What we need is to change our educational philosophy.

In our public schools, we must create continual chances for creativity, encourage and recognize unconventional achievement, customize curriculums, stimulate independent thinking, allow children to be children by granting them license to play, and build intellectual greenhouses to nurture talent. We must train our teachers to foster an innovative mindset. Innovation emerges from talent, and talent cannot be taught - but it can be cultivated.

What about students who lack such talents: Would they be left behind? No, there's plenty of room for them in the innovation economy and in innovation education. Innovators rely on their colleagues to research, develop, fund, implement, test, expand, package and market their ideas. Just ask California-based Apple iPod chief designer Jonathan Ive, who was recently honored by Queen Elizabeth.

In this new cutting-edge learning environment, students will find their footing and acquire the necessary skills at a younger age. Fewer will graduate college with little idea of what they want to do. For instance, some may realize while in high school that they enjoy teaming up with innovators and start honing their, let's say, entrepreneurial attributes before finishing their K-12 run.

We cannot afford to evolve into this new era; we must revolutionize our approach. When we do, will we finally move up national rankings? Most likely. The funny thing is we probably won't care at that point. Rankings will just seem so, well, old school.

Boaz Dvir is director of communications, office of the dean, at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.