Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

Innovation Is the Key to Smarter Schools —And the Budget Crises Might Spur It

By Stanley S. Litow — July 07, 2009 5 min read

The federal stimulus package has brought encouraging news for the nation’s schools. Our young people will benefit from increased funding for Title I for disadvantaged students, grants through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for special education, expansion of early-childhood education via Head Start, increased emphasis on science and technology, and more charter and choice schools.

While each of these is important, the most valuable sums out of some $100 billion in extra funding for education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are not going toward a specific program. Rather, they are fueling a real and overdue focus on innovation. The U.S. Department of Education now has $5 billion in special funding to be used to promote changes that will draw heavily on the development of new, innovative practices.

This money is critical, but our biggest 21st-century challenge in education is getting more value for our dollars. We need to end the Band-Aid approach to school improvement. The promise of the stimulus funds for innovation is that they could open the door for large-scale transformation. In essence, it’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it that matters.

How can we stimulate the kind of education reform and transformation that will lead to smarter schools—schools that enable all students to achieve at higher levels and ultimately lead in the global economy?

Most education reformers will point to the issue of teacher preparation and development. Some feel extending the school day or year for more instruction is critical. Others think that class size is key, and should be reduced. And still others point to the strength of the curriculum, standards, or accountability measures.

But if all we do is spend more on teacher development, in the same way we do now, it might not result in measurable improvement. If we decrease class size or lengthen the day without altering teacher quality, we might not see improvement either. If we test more often but leave the quality of the testing intact, that too might result in little benefit—and perhaps even have some disadvantages.

This is where a commitment to innovation—found in the Education Department’s Race to the Top fund, as well as its “Invest in What Works and Innovation” fund—can have real impact. Innovation is not about the status quo and could shake up the whole system, enabling us to get much more benefit from the money currently being spent. Here are some examples of innovation that might be addressed via this fund.

We have some 15,000 school districts across the country delivering public K-12 programs that collectively spend about $400 billion. Of that amount, nearly $55 billion is spent on what could loosely be called “operations.” While we all believe in local control and making decisions closer to where our children and teachers are, do we really need to continue to order supplies, process payroll, route buses, manage data centers, deliver food programs, or handle operational issues in an endlessly costly and duplicative fashion?

If technology were used to create shared services centers by state, or even regionally, as much as $5 billion could be saved, some believe. This could translate into the ability to hire 100,000 new, better-qualified math and science teachers. It will not be easy to accomplish, but on a smarter planet, we can do this.

It’s being accomplished in other sectors. Despite the economic downturn, scientists and engineers continually find new ways to improve our daily lives by building intelligence into physical infrastructure. Making electrical grids “smarter,” for instance, allows consumers to better manage their energy usage and costs. Cities are figuring out ways to reduce traffic and improve commute times by infusing intelligence into their transportation networks.

We also need to bring the technological revolution into the classroom. Literacy is the foundation for all learning. Voice-recognition technology is helping a smattering of children learn to read. We need to give all children access to this technology.

Similarly, parent involvement is a critical factor in children’s academic success. Automatic-translation technology and bilingual e-mail can help close the digital divide by enabling non-English-speaking parents to communicate with their children’s teachers to find out what is going on in school. We need to make these tools universally available.

Just as we need to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds are fully supported in the classroom, technology could bring students with a range of physical disabilities into the mainstream. But today its use is far too minimal.

Virtual worlds and gaming technology have excited millions of children around the world. We could use this technology to excite them about science, math, and engineering. These technologies could also more efficiently prepare, train, and support our teachers by enabling them to collaborate virtually across states and regions.

What better way to use innovation-targeted funding than to adapt such technologies and offer them to millions of teachers, parents, and children, with a goal of transforming our schools.

But our schools cannot bear the huge burden of educating our children alone. K-12 school systems must connect pre-K and Head Start to colleges and universities, so that our students are well prepared to move seamlessly and successfully from one level to the next. Schools also must forge partnerships with nonprofit agencies providing child and family services, as well as after-school programs offering science and technology enhancement or arts and cultural opportunities. By doing so, they can share important data on students and their families and offer necessary support services.

The private sector also must join these partnerships, providing resources, ideas, and new approaches to old problems. Here is one example. As the baby-boomer population approaches retirement, the potential exists to attract hundreds of thousands of talented professionals into teaching if the incentives are in place. And alternative pathways to teacher certification could provide easier access for those seeking second careers in education.

In 2005, IBM launched Transition to Teaching, a program that provides company-paid tuition, leaves of absence, and other support, such as mentoring, to skilled employees interested in pursuing a second career teaching math or science. The program has served as a model for other corporate and government efforts in California, New York, and outside the United States. If other companies joined the effort, tens of thousands of highly qualified teachers could be the result.

We can find other innovative ways to collaborate to support smarter schools, but only if we work together. The nation’s leadership in the global economy is at stake. Ensuring that our young people have the skills they need to succeed in the global economy is as vital to America’s long-term economic health as a stimulus package is in the short term. Let’s make sure that the money is spent wisely and will create a brighter future for your children and mine.

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