School & District Management

‘League of Innovative Schools’ Seeks New Ideas, Solutions

By Jason Tomassini — March 22, 2012 5 min read
Principal Robert Gasparello looks over 9th grader Eric Gomez's performance numbers after noticing that his ID card did not have his perfomrance goal stickers on it at Sharpstown High School in Houston on March 20, one of the "Apollo 20" HISD schools targeted for improvement.

The “data room” at Sharpstown High School in Houston is covered from floor to ceiling in dense grids, neatly drawn numerals, and a rainbow of felt marker. Every piece of student-performance data—proficiency levels, state test scores, grade point averages—is charted here, and everything is color-coded to denote who is struggling, who isn’t, and what each student’s racial and education background is.

Teachers check the data room every day and discuss the results with students, who have their performance-goal numbers written on the back of their identification cards.

It seems to be working. Students at Sharpstown, a high-poverty school that was once a “dropout factory,” according to Superintendent Terry B. Grier, are now applying to college at a 94 percent rate.

But when a group of high-ranking education industry stakeholders visited Sharpstown High last week on a field trip that was part of a second meeting of the new League of Innovative Schools, the reaction was a mix of awe and disappointment.

The data room is managed by one woman, Brandi Brevard, who spent 80 hours of her spring break updating the room for teachers’ return. Sharpstown’s data-collection software isn’t advanced enough to offer a custom dashboard and personalized data reports, as many on the market do. Those systems are costly, and Ms. Brevard is the only one close enough to the system to know how an advanced software system could help.

“We shouldn’t have to spend 80 hours to do this. There should be tools to do this in eight hours,” Mr. Grier acknowledged.

The League of Innovative Schools exists mostly to address such problems. Part of Digital Promise, an independent nonprofit organization created by Congress during President George W. Bush’s administration, the Washington-based league is intended to bring people together to expedite, streamline, and scale up innovation in education. It was launched last fall.

“I think we have an extraordinary opportunity,” said Adam Frankel, the executive director of Digital Promise and a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama. “We have superintendents who want to do this stuff, entrepreneurs who are hungry to partner, and researchers who are here to evaluate what’s working. We need to build an organization that makes that happen.”

Sharing Best Practices?

There are three main intended outcomes, Mr. Frankel said:

• For districts to make smarter purchasing decisions by being better informed about the education technology market and by partnering on purchases to aggregate demand and lower costs;

• To make innovation faster, through research projects, data collection, and rapid evaluation, much as successful commercial technology companies do; and

• If something works—a product or school improvement initiative, for example—to tell others about it and help them implement it.

Last week in Houston, executives from high-profile companies such as Apple and Pearson, entrepreneurs from newer companies like Knewton and Education Elements, and researchers from universities such as Harvard, met with superintendents of forward-looking school districts, who, by joining the league, agree to pursue those goals. Top officials from the U.S. Department of Education, a partner of the league, helped facilitate discussion.

Schools Showcased

Attendees visited four Houston schools to see an example of how innovation can be streamlined and quickened. As part of an aggressive campaign to turn around its worst-performing schools, Houston, which enrolls 203,000 students, cut 700 central-office positions and $150 million from its budget last year. Those schools, including Sharpstown, are using best practices from charter schools, as determined by researchers at Harvard University. The researchers are also conducting research at the schools with the hope of expanding effective measures outside Houston. (“Houston Schools Apply Lessons From Charters,” March 7, 2012.)

Senior Marco Servin takes an online psychology course an army recruiter told him he needed in the "Grad Lab" at Sharpstown High School, one of the "Apollo 20" HISD schools targeted for improvement, in Houston on March 20.

Much of the March 19 meeting of the league focused on how to overcome the barriers to doing what districts like Houston are doing and to improving the technology procurement process, which seems to frustrate just about everyone who attended the event.

“We don’t know enough about what works,” Jon Guryan, an economist, researcher, and professor from Northwestern University, told the meeting of about 100 people. “When we know something works, we don’t know how cost-effective it is relative to alternatives.”

Researchers at the meeting said districts are often unsure what answers they want quantified and don’t move fast enough to help researchers conduct fast, cost-effective studies.

Entrepreneurs who spoke at the meeting said they faced a similar uncertainty when trying to work with districts. A tenet of the league is that partnerships between districts, vendors, and researchers could help better determine the efficacy of products.

With 14,000 or so school districts in the United States, there are 14,000 buyers spending about $3 billion on technology, according to a 2011 report from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. The same report noted that only 0.2 percent of K-12 spending is on research and development.

Many of the startup companies at the meeting are bypassing school districts and marketing directly to teachers and students, a product of the modern marketplace. That trend also contributes to a disconnect between what products teachers want and what procurement officers in central offices want.

Ratings Sought

The goal of the league is to create a de facto consumers’ union to better inform those decisions.

“My frustration is there are so many vendors working in the industry and there’s so little time to study all the options,” Alan Lee, the superintendent of the Baldwin County public schools in Alabama, said after the meeting. “I hope this league develops a process to vet products.”

Among the solutions suggested by the group was a crowd-sourced rating service for education technology products and group-buying agreements.

With 28,000 students, Baldwin County was actually one of the smaller districts represented at the meeting. But with its pilot 1-to-1 iBooks program, Baldwin County is just as technologically savvy as the others.

At its outset, the league has buy-in mostly from districts that are already seen as innovating, such as Mooresville, N.C., New York City, and Houston. One question is whether rural and less connected districts become more involved as the league progresses. More than 20 districts have signed on so far, Mr. Frankel said.

And Mr. Frankel expressed interest in opening the league up to a broader group of vendors. Many of the major education corporations were at the meeting, along with many of the hottest startups. Mr. Frankel doesn’t want to foster an ecosystem in which the most innovative districts are purchasing just from the most established companies.

“We are trying to level the playing field,” he said after the meeting. “This is a start.”

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Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as Group Seeks to Speed Solutions for Schools

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