Education Letter to the Editor

Innovation, Or More of the Same?

November 14, 2008 4 min read
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To the Editor:

As former leaders of the office of innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, we read with interest the Commentary by Ted Mitchell and Jonathan Schorr, “Federal Education Innovation—Getting It Right” (Oct. 29, 2008). But we were left wondering precisely how their remedies would differ from past attempts at innovation.

To start, supporting entrepreneurial activities and fostering innovation in federal grantmaking are not new. Most of the programs the office sponsors were created by Congress (the old-fashioned way) to foster “out of the box” thinking. One example is the Transition to Teaching program, which supports alternative pathways to teaching. The program has worked with entrepreneurial ventures such as Teach For America, and is open to both nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Not every grant funds a wildly creative pathway to teaching, but when you assemble a peer-review panel to consider grants and give the members guidance on how to conduct the process, you cannot also dictate whom should be selected. Those with experience in federal grantmaking are far more likely to win than the maverick newcomers who are eager to do something different. The secretary of education can sometimes weigh in, but the last time that happened, this very paper wrote at least two stories criticizing the process, even though the selected grantee was one of the most innovative on the slate in question.

Second, innovation and politics don’t play well together. Take the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Program as an example, since Messrs. Mitchell and Schorr forgot to mention it. If innovation should break the mold, this program truly meets the test. Some Democrats and Republicans consider empowering low-income families with the option to enroll their children in well-established private schools an innovation worth exploring; many more, however, do not.

The scholarship program is part of a unique “three sector” initiative designed and championed by local leaders in Washington, and it has infused significant new federal funding into the city’s traditional public schools and charter schools alike, alongside funding for new private-school-choice options. The program includes a rigorous evaluation to test its impact on student achievement and on the public school system.

Its fate is in limbo today, however, as it is unclear whether the next Congress will see the need to continue the program. We hope the next office of innovation will at least adopt the little orphan (just as we adopted the whaling program the Commentary authors singled out) until we better understand its impact.

Finally, the authors were right in their conclusion that the federal government needs to support risk-taking. It can do this by funding the adoption of innovation to make it budget-neutral for the adopters, or by conditioning federal funding to reduce barriers to innovation. These conditions are perhaps even more important to the long-term success of education entrepreneurs than any direct but isolated infusion of cash, and will require support from Congress, which is not known for its speed, nimbleness, or willingness to let agencies have too much spending discretion.

For now, the key to the future success of an office of innovation will depend not so much on what it is called, who leads it, or what programs are housed in it, but in how much power it has to influence the other, larger grants in the agency to foster new relationships and new ways to improve student achievement.

The true test of whether the next administration can stomach “innovation”—and the risks it brings—will rest with the president, and the secretary of education he selects.

Nina S. Rees

McLean, Va.

Doug Mesecar

Lovettsville, Va.

Nina S. Rees was the first assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, serving from 2003 to 2006. Doug Mesecar held that position from March 2008 until November. They both now work for education companies that support entrepreneurial ventures.

To the Editor:

In their Commentary “Federal Education Innovation—Getting It Right,” Ted Mitchell and Jonathan Schorr write: “Great entrepreneurs harness the pragmatic American spirit to spread what works.” Yet 1-to-1 laptop programs, which enable learning at any time in any place, on any path at any pace, seem to have been relegated to the trash heap in the United States. In contrast, students in developing countries have already received half a million laptop computers costing less than $200 each through the Cambridge, Mass-based One Laptop Per Child project.

Modern technology needs to be used in American education to free kids from the bricks-and-mortar approach to schooling. Interactive learning in math and science that teaches students to solve practical applications is superior to that obtained from studying textbooks. Assessments can be built into the software so students can progress at their own rate through courses, decreasing the emphasis on high-stakes testing to determine proficiency. This strategy has been employed for years in online learning, so why not now with laptops?

As international achievement tests show, the United States lags behind other developed countries in precollegiate education. The only way we can catch up is to apply existing technologies. Books and transportation for students certainly cost more than $200 per child per year, and are getting even more expensive. Providing one laptop per child would be much cheaper than current methods of teaching and learning.

G. Stanley Doore

Silver Spring, Md.

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Innovation, Or More of the Same?


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