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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

ESEA Cabin Fever: Should the Feds Support Education Innovation?

By Rick Hess & Peter Cunningham — February 17, 2015 4 min read
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“Cabin Fever” is a virtual conversation between two friends who come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum but share a belief in the power of public education to improve lives and brighten our collective future. The focus of the conversation is the federal K-12 education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), which is in progress in Congress. Our initial post on February 4 reflected areas of agreement around annual testing and transparency. Additional posts focus on areas of disagreement and will run simultaneously through February 19 every other day on Rick’s blog at Education Week and on Education Post.

Should the federal government support education innovation? If so, how should it do so?

Peter Cunningham Responds

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based nonprofit supporting efforts to improve public education. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012.

Fields like health care, energy and space exploration all get federal support for research and development, so why wouldn’t education? There are several good reasons for Washington to support innovation.

First of all, so many school systems are underfunded and simply don’t have spare funds available to try new things. Today, 30 states are funding schools at pre-recession levels. How much innovation will they support?

Second, the field is desperately in need of change. Huge numbers of schools are still organized along the same factory model of the last century. Few other fields have been so resistant to change. School systems need a nudge to innovate.

Third, in a decentralized system like ours, innovation does not always spread organically. Someone has to proactively share new ideas and it is better if that someone is seen as an honest broker of proven ideas rather than a self-promoter.

The wraparound services model developed by the Harlem Children’s Zone was adopted and expanded through the federal Promise Neighborhoods Program. Colorado expanded participation in college-level courses among high schoolers with a grant from the federal i3 program (Investing In Innovation). This Promise Neighborhoods grantee in Seattle is helping homeless kids succeed in school.

Other federal grantees include proven teacher training programs, whole school improvement programs, a rural district improving outcomes for poor kids, and high-quality school options for communities that want them and need them.

Good ideas in education don’t come from Washington, but if we want good ideas to reach more kids quickly, support from Washington can really help.

Rick Hess Responds

The federal government has a useful role to play in creating room for dynamic educators and promoting innovative problem-solving. Federal officials should pursue this agenda not by pushing reluctant states to adopt favored reforms, but by making it easier for innovative educators, districts, and states that are eager to lead.

In education, unlike in national defense, federal employees are not the ultimate users of new innovations—and federal officials aren’t held accountable for the results. This suggests a healthy humility on Uncle Sam’s part. It means steering away from efforts like Race to the Top, which I would characterize less as a spur to innovative problem-solving than as an effort to encourage states to sign on to a 19-item reform checklist.

Innovation-friendly federal officials should do at least three things.

First, use targeted competitive grants to support states, districts, or providers that are seeking to blaze a new path. The ideal is a model that allows grantees to pursue an agreed-upon goal in their distinctive fashion, with little need for jargon-laden proposals, phonebook-thick applications, or ongoing federal monitoring.

Second, strip away impediments that stymie innovative efforts in schools and systems. Lots of well-intended rules issued in 1975 or 1995, governing things like permissible use of federal funds, may not make sense today. Yet the nature of public entities is that such rules linger until officials act to erase them. Worse, the culture of concern produced by decades of compliance can prove stifling. Congress and Department officials can do much to help on this count.

Third, boost federal investment in innovation-spurring educational research. The National Institutes of Health tackles invests in basic research, then leaves the development of drugs and interventions to private providers. That’s the right model for education. Yet the Institute for Education Sciences invests less than $300 million a year in research—not even 1/100th of NIH’s $30 billion research budget.

The federal role should be less about “making” innovation happen than about enabling innovative problem-solvers to thrive.

Other Posts in This Series

Wednesday, February 4 - Issue #1: Testing and transparency

Friday, February 6 - Issue #2: Federal mandates around student performance

Monday, February 9 - Issue #3: What the federal government should require when it comes to school improvement

Wednesday, February 11 - Issue #4: Title I portability

Friday, February 13 - Issue #5: What the federal government should require when it comes to teacher evaluation

Thursday, February 19 - Wrapping Things Up: The proper federal role in K-12 education

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.