Is there real, honest-to-goodness innovation entering the K-12 education space? We seem to use the term “innovation” a great deal, but few seem to know what it really means. The dictionary definition is “something new or different introduced.” When the U.S. Department of Education issued its Investing in Innovation (i3) program last year, innovation was driven by what was research proven and evidence based.
Without question, i3 inspired a significant number of school districts, non-profit organizations, and thought leaders to give real thought to innovation in education. Nearly 1,700 entities submitted applications for i3 funding. Forty nine applicants became i3 winners. But hundreds and hundreds of other projects, particularly some at the school district level, received high scores, indicating the opportunity and potential these education innovations could have.
This week, the Aspen Institute is hosting its Education Innovation Forum and Expo. With a goal of leveraging the interest in i3 to “drive an innovation culture” in education, Aspen and its partners offer up a series of objectives for this meeting and the partnerships and relationships that should come from the gathering, including:
* Create a national stage to feature investment ready non-profit and for profit educational innovations
* Foster an education policy environment that is more innovation and investment friendly
* Showcase high-scoring i3 projects
* Attract more private equity investment to promising education innovations
* Provide an enduring platform for connecting innovators with venture capitalists, social innovation investors, educators, and policymakers
* Engage thought leaders from other sectors in creating a robust education innovation and R&D infrastructure
For those who have been slogging in the ed reform trenches for years, many of these objectives are discussions and actions that we simply have not engaged in to date. Despite interest in additional dollars, the education community, on the whole, has been slow to embrace the role of for-profit interests — particularly as a partner — in public education. We are a sector that still can’t agree on what innovation is. And despite popular opinion, we simply have never invested in a true R&D infrastructure, at least not the way other policy sectors do.
So kudos go to Aspen, the U.S. Department of Education (an “in cooperation” partner of the event), and the partners and sponsors who are jumpstarting the discussion. When everyone from Arne Duncan to Alan Greenspan, Mark Ecko to Joel Klein, and Paul Pastorek to Mike Johnston takes the time to spur this discussion toward a real, innovative, R&D focus, it merits some attention.
In listening to the conversations and formal discussions across the Washington Convention Center, it also raises a few observations:
* Private-sector, and even philanthropic, support for school improvement is meant to be a catalyst. Such funding is not intended to supplant current funding from the state or local community. Private investment is also not intended to be an unending stream of dollars for as long as a new program remains in favor. Such dollars are a way to jumpstart the system, allowing true reformers to move change in an environment often loathe for such.
* Reductions in traditional funding streams, coupled with the possibility of new streams from the private sector, should force us to move away from the status quo. When we are being asked to do more with less, we can’t keep funding what we have done because it is what we have done. New dollars need to be focused on the future and on return on investment. Innovation is an investment in promising practice, not a way to prop up what hasn’t worked in the past.
* We still do not know if we can bring innovation to scale. Currently, we have approximately 15,000 school districts across the United States. In the past decade, Teach for America has been deemed by many the most successful ed reform/innovation effort in public education. According to the TFA website, the organization is working in 39 placement regions, including many of the larger, urban school districts. If TFA increased its regions by 400 percent next year, it would be up to 1 percent of our total districts. This is no knock on TFA, but it is a realization that we still don’t have a working model to bring innovation and reforms to scale in the United States.
Hopefully, the Aspen forum will help drive some thinking toward answering these questions. How do we fund a true R&D research agenda? How do we decide what is worthy of funding? How do we make sure funding is used as intended and drives ROI? And how do we define scalable reform in an industry so tied to the status quo?
As is typical for education, lots of questions. If today is indication, we have real people with real influence committed to answering the questions. We have real checkbooks to back up some of the rhetoric. Now we just need the real ideas and real measures to move the discussion to true action.