School & District Management

‘Education Innovation Clusters’ Aim to Improve Schools

By Michele Molnar — March 17, 2015 7 min read
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“Education innovation clusters"—regional partnerships among school districts, research organizations, private companies, and other groups to improve schools—are evolving in cities and regions around the world, but so far their work has been mostly insular, seldom shared beyond a local geography.

But that parochial approach for sharing lessons learned is changing, fueled by a rising demand for knowledge about what is and is not working to improve schools, especially around digital teaching and learning. Although cluster designs vary, they are largely focused on identifying breakthroughs in learning technologies, use of research on learning, and the development and acceleration of new educational tools and approaches, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

To help coordinate and accelerate the growth of education innovation clusters, Washington-based Digital Promise, an ed-tech advocacy group, announced this month that it is designing a network that will share lessons learned in these hubs with schools in the United States and abroad.

Map: Tracking Education Innovation Partnerships

“The idea is to amplify and coordinate the activities of different entities with the eye to come up with better tools, better policies, and better practices,” said Steven Hodas, a practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. He was hired by Digital Promise to lead a study on the impact of education innovation clusters.

Pooling Assets

An education innovation cluster, Mr. Hodas said, is an approach that people in a city or region can use to pool talents, perspectives, and assets to tackle challenges that are facing schools, and usually features one organizing entity such as a school district or university working with partners to provide support and services to schools. They often start informally and evolve into more structured efforts over time. In addition to the 14 U.S.-based clusters, five other countries have active educational innovation hubs.

Clusters tend to differ based on the needs of schools in a given area and the organizations that support them. Usually, a cluster includes researchers, ed-tech companies, universities, investors, developers, and foundations or nonprofits. They can originate with a clear ed-tech focus, as has happened in Boston with LearnLaunch and Baltimore with EdTech Maryland. Another place they can start is in universities’ graduate schools of education, such as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia.

Or, school districts can be the organizing force, as occurred in the New York City schools with the iZone, and is now happening in Nashville, Tenn., where the school district is working with Alignment Nashville, which has built a framework for developing community schools.

“It’s not necessary for the district to be the convener for teachers, schools, and students to benefit,” Mr. Hodas said. But when a district is the convener, he said it adds “political capital,” because it signals from top leadership that addressing the district’s challenges in innovative ways is a high priority.

“The point of all this is to help school leaders make better decisions about the tools they’re bringing into classrooms,” said Katrina Stevens, the senior advisor for educational technology at the Education Department, who will be working with Mr. Hodas as he studies the clusters.

Promising Ideas in Pa.

Last August, Digital Promise convened the 14 U.S.-based clusters for a meeting in Pittsburgh, which is considered home to one of the most mature innovation hubs, said Sara A. Schapiro, the director of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of 57 districts. Pittsburgh’s cluster includes about 200 organizations coordinated by the Sprout Fund, a nonprofit that has invested about $1.3 million in 100 innovative learning projects and programs since 2009.

“The best clusters we’ve seen are where all the community partners are working together to support the teaching and learning that’s happening in districts,” said Ms. Schapiro.

Cathy Lewis Long, the Sprout Fund’s founding executive director, said more than 50 Pennsylvania school districts take part in the cluster’s activities.

“A lot of people said, ‘What’s happening? What’s in the water there?’” joked Ms. Long. “There’s been so much transformation in the area’s school systems.”

Two of the districts—the rural South Fayette Township schools in McDonald, and the suburban Elizabeth Forward schools in Allegheny County—have become widely known for trying innovations within the cluster and sharing their findings with districts nearby and across the United States and around the world.

For instance, a building for grades 3-5 that recently opened in the 3,000-student South Fayette district has been specifically designed with curriculum innovation in mind—a first floor features an environmental curriculum focus for 3rd graders, a second floor highlights earth and space for 4th graders, and a third floor has a dedicated robotics area for 5th graders, said Bille Pearce Rondinelli, the superintendent of the South Fayette schools. That’s just one way this rural community is helping its students develop skills that will prepare them for college and careers.

To Bart Rocco, the superintendent of the 2,700-student Elizabeth Forward schools since 2009, innovation became an imperative when he realized students needed to be engaged in learning in different ways. “We were losing some kids as dropouts, and losing others that enrolled in cyber charters,” he said.

A grant to establish a “gaming academy” with help from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was

the beginning of the quest to move the use of technology to a higher level in schools. Elizabeth Forward agreed to pilot programs, such as eSpark’s iPad app, which school officials say helped boost scores for kindergartners, and 1st and 2nd grade special education/Title I students, an average of 25 percentile points in reading and math after a semester. The district also redesigned the high school media center to feature recording studios, performance spaces, mobile devices, and a coffee shop.

“We wanted to create an environment to make school ‘cool’ again,” said Mr. Rocco, “and provide a structure where [students] could think about their future.”

Speeding Up Development

Richard Culatta, the director of the office of education technology at the federal Education Department, said improving lesson sharing among clusters can help scale “what works” much faster. “If you’re building a tool or an app and your whole team is three people, and you’re doing this on the side while you’re teaching or whatever, the idea of running a three-year randomized controlled study doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We need to show how that can be accelerated.”

Ms. Stevens added that having a connected-cluster structure could be instrumental in developing a methodology so experimental trials could be conducted in different parts of the country, providing “data that has some rigor to it, so the information will be meaningful.”

Companies that work with clusters might find it easier to try out their products with participating schools, but Mr. Hodas cautioned that “it would be a mistake for a company to look at this just as an opportunity to pilot.

“For all these participants, the question they need to ask is not just, ‘What can I get out of it?,’ but also, ‘What can I learn?,’ ” Mr. Hodas said.

Ms. Schapiro said an eventual outcome of Mr. Hodas’ research will be the creation of a “playbook” that will explain the workings of clusters, and another convening of all the clusters and interested parties.

“We don’t want to be prescriptive, that it has to be this type of community partner that’s coordinating a cluster,” she said. What is important is that “a school district remains at the center of what they’re doing, and that all activities center on driving teaching and learning.”

Deciding how to measure outcomes will be one of the goals of Mr. Hodas’ research.

“Right now, there’s not a lot of systematic ways of thinking about outcomes” in an education innovation cluster, he said. Identifying a cluster’s primary goals is a first step in that work, and it will help formalize what gets measured.

Ultimately, the clusters could have widespread impact, though. While the greatest benefits accrue to those who participate in the cluster, when the information is shared through a network of interested parties—like the Education Department or the League of Innovative Schools—"any school can benefit,” Ms. Schapiro said.

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as ‘Education Innovation Clusters’ Aim to Improve Schools


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