America’s Strength: An Innovation Economy

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In a 2012 article in The New York Times called “China’s Rise Isn’t Our Demise,” Vice President Joe Biden wrote a cogent summary of America’s advantage in the world economy that has enormous implications for innovation in education.

“The United States is hard-wired for innovation. Competition is in the very fabric of our society. It has enabled each generation of Americans to give life to world-changing ideas – from the cotton gin to the airplane, the microchip, the Internet.

We owe our strength to our political and economic system and to the way we educate our children – not merely to accept established orthodoxy but to challenge and improve it… Our universities remain the ultimate destination for the world’s students and scholars.”

Nothing in Biden’s article was new or surprising. Every American understands that our success in the world economy depends on education and innovation.

So why do we devote so little attention to innovation in education? The very orientations and investments Vice President Biden cited as the basis of our success in other fields are rarely applied to improving education itself. Instead of inventing our way to success, as we do in so many other fields, we keep trying to improve education through changes in governance, regulations, and rules, which never produce change in core classroom practices and outcomes. Every state’s textbook adoption requirements specify paperweight, but never mention the weight of evidence behind the use of the book. Special education regulations specify that children be placed in the “least restrictive environment” but never the “most effective environment.” Title I has reams of regulations about how funds can or can’t be spent, but hardly a word suggesting that they be spent on programs proven to work.

The shelf of proven programs is steadily growing, due to investments at the Institute for Education Sciences, Investing in Innovation (i3), the National Science Foundation, and other government funders, as well as private foundation funders. Yet evidence and innovation continue to play an extremely small role in Title I, Title II, special education, and other federal programs, much less in state and local programs. A movement toward giving schools and districts more freedom in choosing how to use federal funding is a positive development, but local educators will need reliable information about proven, replicable programs to translate their new freedom into solid benefits for their children. Innovation based on research and development is what America does best. Isn’t it time to dedicate ourselves to innovating our way to solutions of our longstanding educational problems?

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Promoting Proven Programs in Title I: The Bully Pulpit

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Title I, the 800-pound gorilla of federal education policy, spends $15 billion a year to help high-poverty schools enhance outcomes for their students. The greatest victory for evidence-based reform would be for the roughly 51,500 Title I schools to make far greater use of programs known to enhance student learning, benefitting millions of at-risk children throughout the U.S. Yet because Title I is a formula grant, it is difficult for federal policy to increase use of proven approaches. Competitive grants can provide preference points for using proven models, as I’ve argued before, but in formula grants, it is more difficult to nudge educational leaders toward use of proven programs, since they will receive their money as long as they follow the rules.

One solution to this problem might be to borrow President Theodore Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency as a “bully pulpit.” In other words, even during a time of congressional gridlock, it is possible for the administration to promote the use of proven approaches, even in formula grants, at little or no cost.

The first thing the U.S. Department of Education would have to do is to review all the programs in the What Works Clearinghouse according to the simpler, clearer standards in the EDGAR regulations. Someone would then have to prune the resulting lists of programs, identifying programs that meet the EDGAR standards for “strong” and “moderate” levels of evidence to remove programs that no longer exist or that do not have anyone providing training and materials similar to those provided in the successful studies. The remaining programs would represent a good starting list of programs that, if implemented well, would be likely to have positive impacts on student achievement.

Department officials could then publicize this list in many ways. Certainly, they could create a web site showing the programs and the evidence behind them and linking to the programs’ web sites. They might sponsor “effective methods fairs” around the U.S. to demonstrate programs available for schools and districts to choose. They might distribute certificates to schools that adopt proven programs and then implement them with fidelity, as certified by the developers.

These strategies and others could arouse widespread interest in proven programs, and help school leaders make a wide array of choices of programs appropriate to their needs.

If funds became available, the Department might provide modest incentive grants to help schools supplement the start-up costs of proven programs. But even without special incentive funding, schools should be able to make choices from among programs known to be likely to help them succeed with their children, using their existing Title I funds.

A creative “bully pulpit” policy might begin a process of expanding use of existing proven programs, encouraging creation and evaluation of new ones, and increasing sophistication in choosing how to spend federal resources. All of this could be accomplished for nearly nothing, while gradually moving the $15 billion in Title I toward more effective uses. Over time, such a policy would also encourage developers and researchers to create and evaluate programs likely to meet EDGAR standards, and it could help build political support for investments in R&D that ultimately result in better outcomes for children on a broad scale.

A “bully pulpit” strategy would still need to be accompanied by policies of providing incentives to adopt proven programs in competitive grants, and with continued support for the R&D pipeline, such as that provided by Investing in Innovation (i3), the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). However, development and research in education have to go beyond R&D; they need to be seen as a routine, growing part of the world of educational practice and innovation.

*Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress