School & District Management Commentary

How the Federal Government Can Promote Innovation

By Patrick McGuinn, Larry Berger & David Stevenson — May 03, 2012 7 min read

The fourth in a five-part series

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation programs have received tremendous attention for their efforts to prod states into innovative approaches to school reform. These programs from the current administration are not, however, the first federal programs directed at educational innovation. Earlier efforts of previous administrations included the creation of Project Follow Through, New American Schools, the National Science Foundation’s education and human resources directorate, the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement, and the department’s office of innovation and improvement.

The key question for federal policymakers is how to promote and sustain effective innovations and how to bring them to scale to generate systemic improvement. As federal policymakers attempt this, they face a compliance conundrum: A lack of program specificity and oversight can undermine the impact of federal efforts to force change, but too much specificity and oversight can lead to compliance-driven behavior that undermines the idiosyncratic insights and individual convictions that spark innovation. In thinking about the best orientation for the federal government regarding innovation, it is useful to recognize that innovation at the state, district, and school levels depends on various capacities: political, financial, organizational, and technical. As a result of these different capacity needs, the federal government may take a range of possible roles.

Role as funder: Increase funding for state, district, and private-sector experimentation. The same feature of competitive-grant programs that makes them effective at driving reform—there are losers and winners—also makes them difficult to sustain politically. One idea might be to transition to a block grant to states for the funding of their own innovation-aid initiatives (think: Race to the Top), perhaps through a matching grant that is contingent on allocating state funds alongside federal money. Such an approach might increase ownership of innovation efforts by states and districts, encouraging them to engage in meaningful, rather than symbolic, oversight of grant winners and enabling such efforts to be sustained over the longer term. This approach would also make the Race to the Top more of a distributive program, which could garner sufficient congressional support to make it sustainable. Since there is likely to be little appetite for major new expenditures in the coming years, and since private investment is picking up, the federal government should also focus its investments on politically viable programs, basic research that supports common problems, and programs that promise to lower the absolute cost of the education system—for instance, technologies that enable more efficient use of teacher time.

Role as market creator: Push states to reduce barriers to entrepreneurship and to tune regulation to current contexts. Numerous statutory and regulatory barriers discourage or prevent educational entrepreneurs from bringing innovative ideas into K-12 school districts or from opening new ventures and schools outside of them. As the demand for creative new K-12 organizations grows, it is imperative that federal policymakers rethink status quo funding formulas and requirements like seat time and class size that may get in the way of solutions that ensure optimal, personalized outcomes rather than general inputs.

See Also

Read the entire five-part series of essays adapted for Education Week from the recently published book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit. Writers include Charles Barone, Larry Berger, Chester E. Finn Jr., Andrew Rudalevige, and Marshall S. Smith.

Role as facilitator: Push governance reform and create common metrics for accountability. Traditional methods of organizing, financing, and governing schools are a major impediment to the conception and implementation of educational innovations. The federal government can shake up the status quo by funding the expansion of experimental schools outside the district system and by supporting governance reforms that make the districts more willing to experiment with different school structures and pedagogies. Both these objectives may be addressed in federal school restructuring policies that push districts to convert failing schools into charters, turn them over to private or nonprofit management, or encourage districts themselves to take more ambitious approaches to reconstituting schools.

Common outcome metrics permit reliable evaluation and comparison of different interventions. While the federal government should resist the temptation to exert control over the development of actual goals and metrics, the feds should continue to encourage—through rhetoric and finances—the state-level adoption of the common-core standards and assessments. In addition to academic standards, various system-interoperability standards and data-taxonomy standards may need a federal push to gain traction. This needs to occur delicately in conjunction with states and private players, but getting it right would reduce the cost and accelerate the pace of innovation.

Role as disseminator: Promote formal and informal networks of entrepreneurs. Scholars have long emphasized the important role that professional networks play in the diffusion of innovations, but in the past, federal efforts to communicate with educational entrepreneurs—or to facilitate communication among them—have been underdeveloped. We live in a more fluidly networked world today, and it should be possible for Race to the Top states, Investing in Innovation grantees, School Improvement Grant providers, and policymakers to have real-time conversations about what works, what doesn’t work, and what the real challenges of implementation are. The recently launched League of Innovative Schools, an initiative of the nonprofit Digital Promise, may prove to be an example of this sort of network for connecting innovators, districts, and researchers.

The key question for federal policymakers is how to promote and sustain effective innovations and how to bring them to scale to generate systemic improvement."

Role of “geek squad”: Enhance technical assistance to and among states, districts, and schools. Real-time communication, data, and feedback loops can radically reshape the nature of communication between federal policymakers and teachers on the front lines. The technical-assistance function should increasingly be seen as a two-way communication channel in which the federal government, states, districts, and teachers are providing each other feedback on troubleshooting and policy implementation. The Education Department has taken a promising step in this direction by creating the Implementation and Support Unit to help states with implementation of reforms under programs such as the Race to the Top.

Role as researcher: Expand and reshape federal research and development. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $600 billion currently spent on elementary and secondary education is directed toward research on how students learn. We must get serious about improving the quantity and quality of federally sponsored research in education. Recent efforts, like the George W. Bush administration’s creation of the Institute for Education Sciences and the Obama administration’s proposal to create an education technology agency modeled on the famous Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, are promising starts. The historical record demonstrates that programs funded by federal grants are rarely evaluated, and that even when they are, these evaluations are often ignored by members of Congress. Any meaningful effort to improve the efficacy of federal efforts around promoting innovation must include enhanced programmatic evaluation and better use of this information.

Federal programs intended to promote innovation in education have generally suffered from a lack of clarity about what innovation means, how to assess impact, and how to bring successful models to scale. Thus, they risk funding programs that are not particularly innovative to begin with (the status quo in innovation’s clothing) and that become less innovative over time. Once created, these programs tend to develop constituencies and political allies that defend their funding long after they have been shown to be ineffective or have ceased being innovative.

Despite the obstacles, it is clear that federal support for innovation has the potential to be a driving force for school improvement if we can learn lessons from past successes and failures. While foundations, entrepreneurs, and districts all have a vital role to play in advancing educational innovation, only the federal government has the resources to provide sufficient political and financial capital to fuel systemic education experimentation.


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