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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Related Tags:

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

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management School Leaders With Disabilities: 'It's Important to Share That You're Not Alone'
Educators say their own experience gives them insight into the needs of students with disabilities and how to support them.
14 min read
Joe Mazza, 44, the principal at Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua, N.Y., was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. He says the diagnosis has informed his leadership, allowing him to engage with students and parents who face the same neurodevelopmental disorder. On June 24, 2022, he starts his day in the Media Studio as fifth-grader Anna Villa prepares for the morning newscast.
Joe Mazza, 44, the principal at Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua, N.Y., was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. He said the diagnosis has informed his leadership, allowing him to engage with students and parents who face the same neurodevelopmental disorder.
Christopher Capozziello for Education Week
School & District Management Opinion You're an Educator. What Can You Stop Doing This Year?
Teachers and education leaders often feel stretched for time. Here are 9 ways to rethink your schedule.
5 min read
CartoonStock 543822 CS458303
Cartoon Stock
School & District Management Top Tips for New Assistant Principals From Those Who've Been There
Nurture relationships, learn on the job, take care of yourself—and other key advice.
5 min read
Image of leaders as a central figures to a variety of activities in motion.
Laura Baker/Education Week and gobyg/DigitalVision Vectors
School & District Management L.A. Cracks Down on Homeless Encampments Near Schools, Over the Jeers of Protesters
Under the new restrictions, homeless people would be prohibited from setting up tents within 500 feet of every public and private school.
David Zahniser and Benjamin Oreskes, Los Angeles Times
5 min read
A homeless camp in downtown Los Angeles pictured on Sept. 17, 2019. A proposal to greatly restrict where homeless people may camp in Los Angeles drew protest at a City Council meeting from demonstrators who fear the rules would criminalize homelessness.
A homeless camp in downtown Los Angeles. A proposal to greatly restrict where homeless people may camp in Los Angeles drew protest at a City Council meeting from demonstrators who fear the rules would criminalize homelessness.
Damian Dovarganes/AP