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Education Innovation: What It Is and Why We Need More of It

NOTE: This is a guest post from Jim Shelton, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.

Whether for reasons of economic growth, competitiveness, social justice or return on tax-payer investment, there is little rational argument over the need for significant improvement in U.S. educational outcomes. Further, it is irrefutable that the country has made limited improvement on most educational outcomes over the last several decades, especially when considered in the context of the increased investment over the same period. In fact, the total cost of producing each successful high school and college graduate has increased substantially over time instead of decreasing - creating what some argue is an inverted learning curve.

This analysis stands in stark contrast to the many anecdotes of teachers, schools and occasionally whole systems "beating the odds" by producing educational outcomes well beyond "reasonable" expectations. And, therein lies the challenge and the rationale for a very specific definition of educational innovation.

Education not only needs new ideas and inventions that shatter the performance expectations of today's status quo; to make a meaningful impact, these new solutions must also "scale", that is grow large enough, to serve millions of students and teachers or large portions of specific under-served populations. True educational innovations are those products, processes, strategies and approaches that improve significantly upon the status quo and reach scale.

Shelton graphic.JPG

Systems and programs at the local, state and national level, in their quest to improve, should be in the business of identifying and scaling what works. Yet, we traditionally have lacked the discipline, infrastructure, and incentives to systematically identify breakthroughs, vet them and support their broad adoption - a process referred to as field scans. Programs like the Department of Education's Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) are designed as field scans; but i3 is tiny in comparison to both the need and the opportunity. To achieve our objectives, larger funding streams will need to drive the identification, evaluation, and adoption of effective educational innovations.

Field scans are only one of three connected pathways to education innovation, and they build on the most recognized pathway - basic and applied research. The time to produce usable tools and resources from this pathway can be long - just as in medicine where development and approval of new drugs and devices can take 12-15 years - but, with more and better leveraged resources, more focus, and more discipline, this pathway can accelerate our understanding of teaching and learning and production of performance enhancing practices and tools.

The third pathway focuses specifically on accelerating transformational breakthroughs, which require a different approach - directed development. Directed development processes identify cutting edge research and technology (technology generically, not specifically referring to software or hardware) and use a uniquely focused approach to accelerate the pace at which specific game changing innovations reach learners and teachers. Directed development within the federal government is most associated with DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which used this unique and aggressive model of R&D to produce technologies that underlie the Internet, GPS, and the unmanned aircraft (drone). Education presents numerous opportunities for such work. For example: (1) providing teachers with tools that identify each student's needs and interests and match them to the optimal instructional resources or (2) cost-effectively achieving the 2 standard deviations of improvement that one-to-one human tutors generate. In 2010, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended the creation of an ARPA for Education to pursue directed development in these and other areas of critical need and opportunity.

Each of these pathways -the field scan, basic and applied research and directed development - will be essential to improving and ultimately transforming learning from cradle through career. If done well, we will redefine "the possible" and reclaim American educational leadership while addressing inequity at home and abroad. At that point, we may be able to rely on a simpler definition of innovation:

"An innovation is one of those things that society looks at and says, if we make this part of the way we live and work, it will change the way we live and work."
-Dean Kamen


-Jim Shelton

Note: The Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education administers more than 25 discretionary grant programs, including the Investing in Innovation Program, Charter Schools Program, and Technology in Education.

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