Special Report

Feds Aim to Spark Fresh Thinking on Schooling

By Michele McNeil — March 02, 2012 7 min read

As the private sector works faster and more boldly to churn out next-generation technology and embrace cutting-edge practices, the U.S. Department of Education and its partner federal agencies are ramping up their efforts to bring more spark and innovation into elementary and secondary schools.

Under President Barack Obama, the administration has updated education technology and broadband plans that seek to set a national vision, launched a competition to reward school districts and nonprofits for innovative ideas, and started a pilot project to allow federal money to pay for mobile devices to put digital learning within reach for more students.

And most recently, the administration announced a goal of bringing e-textbooks to every student by 2017.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who speaks of making his big, bureaucratic agency into an “engine of innovation,” says his department is far from that goal.

“I think we’re off to a really good start, but we are totally, totally, totally in our infancy. When you look at how much faster innovation happens in other sectors than it does in education, I always wonder why we are such a laggard,” Mr. Duncan said in a January interview.

While he said that programs like the $4 billion Race to the Top competition for states and the $800 million Investing in Innovation district competition have prompted rapid changes and great ideas, too many good proposals went unfunded.

“We’re trying to encourage and incentivize and take to scale all of that. I think there’s this huge amount of creativity and innovation that’s out there,” Mr. Duncan said.

Indeed, the federal government can only do so much, as K-12 education remains primarily a state and local responsibility. What’s more, the Education Department’s only program devoted exclusively to education technology was eliminated last year by Congress, which defunded the Enhancing Education Through Technology program that at one point provided $700 million a year for ed-tech professional development. (“Ed-Tech Advocates Look to Life After Federal Budget Cut,” April 29, 2011.)

For Superintendent Richard L. Miller, who leads the 44,000-student Riverside district in southern California, the federal government’s reach into K-12 generally isn’t welcome—although he admits that, on a practical level, he likes the money the Education Department sends.

But he does welcome the federal government’s involvement in helping to set a national tone on innovation.

“What they could do is really take up what I’ll call a bully-pulpit approach to advocate for a 21st-century public education system that would be dramatically different than what we have today,” said Mr. Miller, whose district has been on the ed-tech leading edge with initiatives that include putting e-textbooks in the hands of students.

“Computers are meaningless,” he said. “All they are are potentially tools that could be used in the learning process. To the degree that the federal government could help us create a national vision, those are things that move the conversation.”

‘Pipeline of Innovation’

One of the highest-profile efforts to turn the federal Education Department into an “engine of innovation” is its Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant competition, which already has awarded $800 million in two rounds to promising education improvement projects—in various levels of development—that may eventually be scaled up.

The Federal Government And Innovation

The U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies have launched several initiatives to try to bring more innovation into K-12 schools. Some examples:

• National Education Technology Plan—Revised in November 2010 by the Education Department, this document sets a national vision for making learning more personalized, changing how teachers connect with content tools, and leveraging data from different sources to improve learning. The plan has sparked several other department initiatives, including one to help industry organizations develop interoperability standards so education data systems can “talk” to each other, even across state lines.

• Investing in Innovation—This competitive-grant program, known as i3, was originally created by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Run by the Education Department, i3 has now awarded $800 million to districts, schools, and nonprofit partners to scale up what are deemed promising and innovative ideas for improving education. The department is seeking more funding from Congress to expand the program.

• Mobile learning—The Federal Communications Commission created a pilot program in 2010 to allow federal E-rate money to pay for mobile devices that students and teachers can take home with them. The $9 million effort, which has made awards to 20 schools and libraries, helps pay for the devices, home connectivity, and digital textbooks. E-rate funds previously could be used only for on-campus programs.

• E-textbooks—The Education Department and the FCC announced plans in February 2012 to convene publishing and digital-learning CEOs to jump-start an effort to get e-textbooks in the hands of all students by 2017.

• Digital Promise—The Obama administration in September 2011 launched the Digital Promise, a congressionally authorized clearinghouse with $500,000 in federal startup funding from the Education Department. It’s designed to identify and scale up the most effective innovations in educational technology. As part of this effort, the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, is contributing $15 million to support research on how best to create digital-learning environments. Foundations and other private donors are providing additional funding.


Congress provided nearly $150 million more for the department to spend on the competition during the 2012 fiscal year, but details haven’t been announced. Even though funding for i3 is pocket change compared with the $68 billion the department is spending this year on K-12 and higher education programs, the contest fills an important niche, officials say.

“What we have failed to create is a pipeline of innovation in education where we have a lot of really good ideas that get vetted and then you say ‘Aha, they have real promise; let’s take them to scale,’ ” said James H. Shelton, the department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement.

While designed to find innovation, the competition itself has had an innovative twist. For the first time, the department—which is far more accustomed to handing out money based on predetermined formulas—tied the awarding of federal funding to projects showing varying levels of evidence of past success.

Because of those criteria, some have questioned whether the money, which is now approaching $1 billion, will truly identify innovation in education.

A July 2011 report from Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit Washington consulting firm, said the rigorous evidence standards applicants needed to meet to prove their projects could work produced an award list of “usual suspects” that disappointed many in the foundation world. The report raised questions about whether development teams from Apple Inc. working on the iPhone or iPad could have satisfied the competition’s evidence requirements.

But Mr. Shelton said: “I never expected i3 to find the way, way-out-there innovative stuff that some people would like to see. But it does provide a venue for those things that are promising.”

The i3 competition is part of a broader innovation portfolio that the Education Department is building, which is influenced greatly by the creation of the first national education technology plan in five years. In that document, released in November 2010, the department sought to craft a more comprehensive, forward-thinking approach to how technology can improve education.

“We’re really focusing on how can technology truly transform teaching and learning,” said Karen Cator, the department’s director of the office of educational technology.

That means that the plan goes further than calling for more infrastructure and hardware: It also sets a national vision for making learning more personalized, changing how teachers connect to content tools, and leveraging data from different kinds of student assessments to improve learning.

On a more micro level, that broad plan translates into several new initiatives for the department. It means working with industry organizations to develop, promote, and expand the interoperability standards that allow education data systems within and between states to talk to each other.

The department is also supporting an online-learning registry so teachers can more easily discover, use, and share content on how and what to teach. And the department is helping to start a “league of innovative schools” for superintendents interested in making rapid improvement in their districts by leveraging technology—an idea crafted under the Digital Promise initiative, which was created by Congress, launched by the Obama administration, and funded in part by corporate foundations.

The Obama administration is seeking to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology sector by updating federal policies, which included an important change in 2010 that created a pilot program to allow the use of federal E-rate funds for mobile devices that students and teachers can take home with them.

Round-the-Clock Learning

In July, the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the E-rate program of funding for discounts that enable schools and libraries to connect to the Internet, awarded $9 million to 20 schools and libraries to launch a wireless “learning on the go” project. It helps pay for digital textbooks and other wireless devices needed for digital learning, including for use from a teacher’s or student’s home. Previously, E-rate funds could only pay for on-campus projects.

“We spend millions of dollars on wireless and connectivity which sits unused for a large part of the day and weekend. Providing access at school was great, but the real power is 24/7 learning,” said Jay McPhail, the director of K-12 instructional technology and career technical education for the Riverside district in California. His district is using $1.2 million in E-rate funds to, among other purposes, help pay for broadband access in students’ homes.

“The kids that can afford those devices are communicating and learning around the clock, while those that don’t, we’re trying to provide them access,” he said.

The digital divide will be an enormous hurdle to overcome as the Obama administration pushes for national adoption of e-textbooks for all students by 2017. This month, the administration is expecting to convene a group of CEOs in the digital-publishing industry to jump-start the effort.

“Education is one of the most important challenges we face as a country. Part of the solution is new technologies: ...digital devices, digital textbooks,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski during a national town hall meeting last month that was focused on digital learning. “It will require educators, companies, parents, everyone in the ecosystem to come together to agree on a goal and work hard to get there.”

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 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Feds Aim to Spark Fresh Thinking on Schooling


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