As the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, James H. Shelton manages a portfolio of high-profile competitive-grant programs targeted at improving teacher quality, public school choice, and education technology—including the nearly $1 billion Investing in Innovation contest. Before joining the department in 2009, Mr. Shelton was a program director for the education division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, served as a partner for the NewSchools Venture Fund, and spent four years consulting for McKinsey & Co. He talked with Education Week Assistant Editor Michele McNeil about the role he and the department play in fostering innovation in schools.
Most people acknowledge that government is not especially innovative, so how can the U.S. Department of Education foster innovation in public schools, another entity not known for being particularly innovative?
It’s interesting that people think that. If you think about it, within government, [the National Institutes of Health] play a significant role in research that results in the vast majority of drugs that improve medicine. ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency) has produced many breakthroughs: the Internet, for example. So there are examples around government where government has played a significant role. Government has been a primary mechanism for producing America’s competitive advantage in R&D (research and development). Education R&D is underinvested, even compared to other public sectors such as health and defense.
So first, our job is to create the context to allow good people to do great things in the field. We have a set of persistent challenges; we need to figure out a way to accelerate the pace and help them scale.
The second thing is that the reality is that though the federal government provides only a small fraction of education funding, we are one of the largest single sources. We send incredible signals to the marketplace about what should happen with innovation. That’s not been something either policymakers or regulators have thought a lot about.
Third, innovation happens in the context of an ecosystem. R&D leads to entrepreneurship and investment, which leads to adoption and use. But the lack of investment is significant. There is a range of issues in the education ecosystems, and we have barriers.
What’s an example of how you overcome those barriers?
This thing about not investing in research and development, that’s one reason we put forth ARPA-ED [a fund the Obama Administration has proposed to increase spending in education technologies]. And that’s one reason we’re partnering with other agencies so we can better coordinate across the sectors, such as with the Department of Defense.
As another example, when we create things like [the Investing in Innovation competitive grant program], we are defining an evidence threshold that was not a part of most federal education programs before. Now, we have a threshold, and we’re sending signals to the marketplace that evidence really matters.
Can you do R&D without having Congress create ARPA-ED?
[The Institute of Education Sciences] is doing R&D all the time. As i3 continues and as we get more comfortable putting tiered evidence levels in other areas of the department, we will work on that. There are ways we can use i3 to find more innovative stuff, more early-stage stuff, and also things that are already ready for scale. But in order for us to lead as a country, we need something like an ARPA-ED because other countries are moving toward innovation more aggressively.
Are you just continuing the work of the previous administration, or are you approaching innovation and your job differently?
This work is somewhat about building on and improving the direction of things that are already here. The last administration put rigorous evidence on the map. The Office of Innovation and Improvement was here as well.
Was the i3 program successful?
I think it’s way too early to say if it’s been successful. Has it had successes? Yes. The conversation around evidence and practice is very different than it has been in a long time. It is a pretty fundamentally different approach. This is a great example of what was here before and what we are taking to the next level.
I’m trying to get people to not think about i3 in an isolated year, but as a portfolio. What does the portfolio look like five to seven years out when you have dozens and dozens of programs with proof that they work?
The vision of where things are going is very powerful. [It makes sense that] some formula funding should be targeted towards what works.
But does that fly in Congress?
For programs that prove effective practices, it makes sense to target some of the funding toward what works. It would also make sense for states and districts to target some formula funding toward what works. 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. That pipeline has not existed. We’re trying to create that broad frame for innovation.
Some people don’t think that i3 found much innovation.
We have chosen a very specific definition of innovation ... one that requires that something be significantly better than the status quo and can go to scale. I3 is only one mechanism for doing an [innovation] field scan, so you still need other pathways. There’s only a portion of things you’re going to discover doing the field scan. 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. And that pathway is at least as important.
Do you think that if all of the i3 projects that were funded prove to be relatively effective, and none of them fail, then that means i3 wasn’t innovative, or risky enough?
I wouldn’t judge the program too harshly because there wasn’t enough failure. What I would say is it demonstrates there is much more room for much more innovation. In the landscape of pathways to innovation, i3 is a field scan. It is more conservative. I would like us to try things that have risk.
What lessons were learned from i3 that can be applied to future contests?
The key is how do you get people to get really clear about what they’re trying to do and what will be important in deciding who gets funded. So the biggest lessons learned have been pretty tactical: How do you describe what you want and train the applicants and the peer reviewers to provide and look for the right stuff?
Also, the evaluation [that i3 winners are required to conduct of their projects] is important but it shouldn’t wag the dog. Striking that balance is really challenging but important.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski just announced a push for all schools to adopt e-textbooks by 2017. How important is it for the federal government to get involved in this?
The deal is that ... this is not a mandate. It’s trying to express a vision and [create] some urgency as a nation. We can either lead or follow. We think it’s in our interest to lead. It makes sense to take dollars out of print resources that are static and put those dollars into resources that can be current and kept interactive all the time.
Is everyone on board with making this transition so quickly? Or do you need more buy-in from stakeholders, such as teachers’ unions?
We need huge buy-in from stakeholders. But I don’t think it’s from the teachers’ unions, who are already demonstrating their interest in moving in this direction (such as the NEA foundation’s technology and learning challenge). What has happened before is providers of all kinds and some policymakers have not thought about what technology can do to improve teachers’ lives, making each one more effective and life a little easier.
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 Q&A: Ed. Dept. Innovation Chief Articulates Federal Role