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Federal Opinion

Sec. Duncan on Innovation at the Aspen Institute

By Rick Hess — May 27, 2010 3 min read
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Yesterday, the Aspen Institute hosted Secretary Duncan and i3 chief Jim Shelton for a lunch conversation on educational innovation. There were maybe 35 or 40 folks in attendance, including hotshot supes Jack Dale and Jerry Weast, a handful of influential wonks, a smattering of reporters, reform studs like Common Core avatar David Coleman and New Leaders honcho Jon Schnur, NEA executive director John Wilson, and other assorted heavyweights.

On the whole, I thought it was better than Duncan’s formal speeches. He spoke without any evident notes, pretty much steered clear of the “it’s for the kids” rhetoric, didn’t filibuster, and was admirably direct in responding to some questions--issuing strong affirmative answers to questions about whether the feds should financially penalize colleges which don’t graduate students and whether textbooks are an anachronism.

Not much news, but a few points of interest. As Andy Rotherham pointed out yesterday, Duncan said multiple times that he anticipates only about 70 i3 winners--which would mean that more than 95% of applicants can expect to come up empty. And Duncan indicated that he doesn’t want to hear any more complaints about “Russian judges” from the losers, but does want to hear ideas for improving the quality of reviewing. Not entirely clear to me the distinction being drawn between carping and constructive feedback. His Russian judges crack sounded like a surefire way to discourage criticism from those who want to stay off the Secretary’s naughty list. But we’ll see.

I was struck when i3 came up by the complete absence of any mention (by the Secretary, Shelton, or the audience) about the risk that Congress’s priorities and the emphasis on particular kinds of evidence might stunt or stifle the range of innovative efforts that don’t fit. That’s especially true given the foundation pile-on and the degree to which the limited number of i3 winners may wind up consuming a large amount of the philanthropic oxygen over the next year or more.

The Secretary also signaled that we can expect roughly 10 winners in round two of Race to the Top, and he issued a clear call for Congress to fund additional RTT and i3 competitions. He reminded everyone that the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program offers about as much money as RTT, but has garnered only a tiny fraction of the attention--and then suggested that SIG might ultimately prove to be the more significant effort. An honest and perceptive take, and a reason why it’s important that we talk much more fully and critically about the various SIG models than we have to date.

Two particular points during the conversation gave me pause. First, the Secretary signaled that he’s open to altering federal funding for higher education so as to reward institutions that are graduating students and containing costs. He hit the attainment point hard several different times and I’m with him on principle. My concern, though, is that there was no point at which he acknowledged that institutions of higher education can boost completion rates by doing good work...or by diluting standards or otherwise just pushing students through. Would’ve liked to see him raise a cautionary flag here.

Second, as he also did on Capitol Hill yesterday, the Secretary went out of his way to shill for the Harkin-Obey $23 billion school bailout. Later on, he alluded to the need to both promote cost-effective reinvention and for superintendents and states to make tough choices. But that’s a hard message to sell when he’s aggressively pushing another unconditional bailout and when his signature efforts like RTT, SIG, and i3 place little or no emphasis on rewarding cost-cutting or heightened efficiency. The Secretary never so much as acknowledged that a windfall might blunt the need to move on costs. Nor did I hear him use questions on charter schooling, the anachronistic nature of textbooks, or plaintive calls for more dollars as an opportunity to call for innovation geared to rethinking the cost structure of schooling. And there wasn’t a murmured word about how old-school ESEA provisions governing “maintenance of effort” or “supplement, not supplant” might stifle innovation or deserve a fresh look in a world of constrained spending.

On the whole, not a bad performance. Certainly a more serious and substantial discussion of innovation than I ever heard from any of the Secretary’s predecessors. So he deserves props for that. But I do worry that a lot of this discussion feels like shilling, because there’s a decided inattention (at least in public) to anticipating potential problems and preparing to counter them.

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