Sustainable Funding for Edu Innovation

How can we bring more funding to education in general? And to innovative practices and resources in particular?

The financial limitations on education-innovation should be news to nearly no one. Despite the massive sums regularly spent in the education sector, it almost always feels to participants like an unloved corner of the economy.

How do we change this?

Last week, Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools published The 3 stages of education investing we’re ignoring.

Candler points out that funding goes mostly to Million-dollar-and-up projects, with a little bit going to $10K-100K projects and almost none going to earlier stage projects.

Is early stage investment that bad off? Perhaps, but maybe there’s also a good reason. Either way, there’s much more we can do to increase investment in educational innovation. Much, much more.

To start, we can attract investment that goes from small to scale. And we can draw investment in a sustainable way. Rather than the boom-and-bust approach that gives big money to the buzzword innovation of the day. We can instead attract investment to learning that students and teachers want.

We’ll have to first change how we think of school. We actually know this intuitively. Weekly we hear calls for “systemic change”. No one can really define what systemic change might entail; yet all seem to feel that we’re not yet on the path of that change.

In K12 education, we face a stark choice: accept a different way of thinking about school and learning. Or face more decades of under-investment. Much as the K12 sector has seen billions poured into innovation, we’re still not seeing the transformation most seem to seek.

We have yet to see an iPhone-type moment.

Just as the iPhone ushered in an entirely new economy in the communications sector, a transformative moment in K12 would begin a new era of funding (and learning) in the formal education space. Everything I’ve seen for ten years and more says people are expecting such a moment, and that it has yet to arrive.

So back to Matt Candler’s observation about funding innovation.

First, Matt’s is a somewhat ironic consideration: 4.0 Schools (where he is CEO) controls much of the marketplace of formal $10.00–$10,000 edu-innovation support. Through it’s new merger with the StartupWeekend Education program, 4.0 catches edu-innovators at the moment of concept inception, or shortly thereafter. It matches entrepreneurs with team-mates, and introduces a process for rapidly fleshing out a business concept and plan. Through it’s later-stage programs, 4.0 works with edu-entrepreneurs in the ideate and lean startup phases.

That’s not nothing. Not by a long shot. Startup Weekend is a deep learning experience for English, Science, and Education majors who have never seen a balance sheet or a user projection — injecting the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars in saved time and effort. More importantly, it’s a source of personal connections. The people I’ve met at Startup Weekends remain part of my closest network of peers.

Further along the investment spectrum, 4.0's Essentials and Launch programs funds seed stage initiatives. As Matt explains, they take solutions to testing and to market. Here, though, is where the irony comes in.

For every team in the 4.0 Spring Launch cohort, there are already a number of organizations elsewhere tackling an identical human problem space.

In other words, 4.0 Launch is not yet in the innovation business. They’re in services replication, localization, and customization. They take existing concepts and spread them to additional markets.

Which is a great thing. We definitely need more of all those. Much more.

Disruptive innovation, however, is a different beast. To put it in other terms, 4.0 chooses to invest in scale. Not scaling existing organizations, or existing brands, but scaling existing practices and approaches.

Is it because the 178 groups who applied to Launch offered no truly divergent or disruptive experiments? Is it that 4.0's backers constrain their selections? I can’t say. We all have our burdens and constraints. Perhaps Matt’s piece is a plea to his own supporters and team.

Still, if “America’s Education Innovation Lab” is doing scaling instead of innovation, can we expect others to invest in more edu-innovation?

We need something else. A new, disruptive approach. We need that iPhone type moment, a fundamental change that electrifies the imaginations of funders, inventors, and users alike.

When Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak created the first operating systems for personal computers, they created a radical expansion and accessibility of opportunities for tailored, customized computing. These OS’s did not limit how computers could be used; they radically opened up opportunities for people with an enormous diversity of needs and desires to develop hardware and software that met those needs and desires. A dramatically more flexible, permeable K-12 OS will do the same. — Grant Lichtman

We need to run experiments that reach into the heart of what we think of as the K12 student experience. Only then will we see the investment increase Matt and others seek.

I don’t write this in a poetic, dreamy, “Oh, I wish…” way. I’m rather sure I know precisely what a huge chunk of that iPhone-type moment entails.

It starts with escaping from Trapped in the High School OS Kernel, and grows (as the iOS ecosystem did) from there.

It starts when we stop investing everything in school-in-a-box, and switch our mindsets to an expanded learning ecosystem.

Let’s repeat that: to push high school forward for all kids, we need to look to the wider world. To formalize connections to the world outside school.

I’ve spent plenty of time with America’s best teachers, the ones pressing the limits of today’s school-in-a-box. We’ve heard where the unbreakable boundaries are, and how and where they need support in going to a much higher level of personalized learning.

Matt inspiringly asks:

What if every member of the next generation saw education as a field where their ideas mattered, where they might make a career of it solving these very big, very important problems? What if we were there to meet them when they knocked on our door?

Once we choose a new level of disruptive innovation, we’ll start to see a huge influx of sustained investment for educational innovation. We’ll have that iOS moment.

Ed Jones is author of the forthcoming book Hacking High School: Making School Work for All Teens. He is bootstrapping A Statewide Laboratory for Student-Driven Learning (and looking to test a new High School OS).