Is Innovation the Way to Transform Public Education?

Jason Weeby, Senior Fellow at Bellwether Education Partners

Decades-long work to transform U.S. public education has had its share of failures, stumbles, and pivots. It has also had many successes. Education Pioneers Alum Jason Weeby, Senior Fellow at Bellwether Education Partners, reflects on some of those wins and losses.

He also talks with Education Pioneers about why having the courage to innovate, face necessary failures on the road to success, and persevere in work to disrupt the status quo will ultimately transform education for the better — especially if we remain reflective and always maintain a large helping of empathy.

1. You’re speaking on a panel at the #EP2016 National Conference, called “Pilots, Prizes and Investments — What’s Working and What’s Not.” It seems that there are always new ideas in education — often originating from pilots, prizes, and investments — but not all of them are successful. Without scooping your session, what’s working in education, and what’s not?

We’ve had a lot of successes and failures with pilots, prizes, and investments in the last 10 years.

I count the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants to be successful federal programs.

Local efforts to create new school models like the Silicon Schools Fund and NewSchools Venture Fund are valuable organizations in the sector because they’re continually applying lessons to new efforts, identifying top-notch entrepreneurs, and diversifying school offerings for parents.

Talent programs like Teach For America and Education Pioneers or The Mind Trust’s fellowships are always a good investment, especially when the participants and alumni go to organizations that have demonstrated an ability to improve academic outcomes for high-needs students.

There’s an equally long list of failures, however. The federal School Improvement Grants haven’t nearly accomplished the transformation that we needed. The Broad Prize for school districts was discontinued because there weren’t enough urban districts seeing significant improvement overall or in closing achievement gaps. Mark Zuckerberg’s massive investments in Newark didn’t serve as a national model for reform, nor did it turn around the city’s schools.

There are probably just as many misses as hits. But that’s the way innovation works.

2. What is the goal of pilots, prizes, and investments and are they working the way they should?

The goal of pilots, prizes, and investments is often (but not always) to implement a new idea and see what the results will be or scale existing innovations. Failure is always going to be a potential outcome of the innovation process.

Unfortunately, taking risks and dealing with failure are two things that we don’t do well in the education sector. The totally legitimate fear is that a new product, process, curriculum, or school model will do harm to students in some way. No parent wants schools experimenting on their kids.

Another fear is that organizations will expend scarce philanthropic resources on something that doesn’t end up working. If we yield to this fear and become paralyzed by it, generating and implementing new ideas will be all but impossible and we’ll never move beyond an urban education system that deprives students of a quality education.

Instead, we have to be more sophisticated and courageous (an EP core value!). Funders need to get more comfortable with risk. Nonprofits and government agencies need to spend on research and development. We need guidelines for responsible innovation to protect students and assuage fears. Schools and nonprofits need to skill up their staffs on innovation practices like ideation, prototyping, user interviews, and measurement with process indicators.

The Emerson Collective, 4.0 Schools, Digital Promise, and Transcend Learning come to mind as organizations doing great things on different fronts.

But innovation isn’t just sticking post-its on walls or tinkering in the garage. When done well, it’s actually a very methodical process. A lot of what I’m doing these days is learning what innovation looks like at different levels of the sector from individual entrepreneurs to citywide ecosystems. Lots of lessons from other sectors give us a guide for what to look for, but we have to translate those lessons to work in the unique circumstances of education.

3. Bellwether Education Partners, where you work, recently released a sweeping (but accessible) online overview of the history of education reform policy called the Learning Landscape. It gives a high-level look at student achievement; accountability, standards, and assessments; school finance; teacher effectiveness; charter schools; and philanthropy. What was the impetus for this project, why is it important, and how should people use it?

First, I need to give credit to the Robertson Foundation for supporting the Learning Landscape and to my colleague Jenn Schiess for bringing it to life. We saw a need to bring together the data and evidence on these fundamental topics in the education sector and put it in one place in an effort to support honest and evidence-based debate on the policy and practical solutions to education’s most pressing problems.

Too often, we see interests pitted against one another and arguments made that don’t engage fully or honestly with the facts. We certainly want to see debate where reasonable individuals can disagree, but we want that debate to be grounded in evidence. It’s important because that’s the kind of healthy, productive debate that leads to progress. We adhere to these standards on our own blog and we’ve been running a phenomenal Better Blogging Training for years to get new voices into the national discussion.

We see a variety of uses for The Learning Landscape. It is fundamentally a resource that thought leaders in the sector and journalists reporting on education can use to inform their work. But its uses go well beyond that — we could see it being required reading for a college course on education policy or a primer for staff or board members for an education organization, a philanthropic organization, or a charter school. In the longer term, we hope to be able to expand and update it to increase its usefulness and reach in the field.

4. One topic the Learning Landscape addresses is that though student achievement in the US has improved over time, the rate of improvement is slow, has shown stagnation in the past year, and wide racial and socioeconomic gaps persist. To what factors do you most attribute this slow growth and stagnation? Why can’t American education seem to move the needle at a quicker pace?

There are many reasons for our lack of progress, but I focus on two. The first is the lack of innovation, which I explain above. The second is that there are very few examples of cities and states departing from traditional governance models that sustain the inequities we’re trying to eliminate. I spend a lot of time thinking through the structures that determine who has power, who makes decisions, how stakeholders make their voice heard, and how accountability works.

I worked at Education Pioneers for six years, and if you had asked me that question during my tenure there, I would have said that there weren’t enough super talented people in key leadership positions to make the system work. But the longer I stayed around and saw friends and colleagues take on senior leadership roles, especially in school districts, I could see that their potential to affect change was throttled by layers of bureaucracy and special interests.

We may have very well reached the upper limit for what can be done through traditional urban school districts, which have stayed very much the same for more than a century in both structure and results, yet continue to educate 95 percent of American public school students.

Exogenous factors are making urban education a more difficult task too. For instance, increasing concentrations of poverty, high levels of student mobility, and growing numbers of English language learners mean kids come to school thinking about more than just reading and math. Schools can’t ethically abdicate their responsibility to educate students because of these factors, so they have to be responsive to them.

If I asked you to create a new urban school system from scratch that would be responsive to these factors, I’m guessing it wouldn’t look much like what we have serving students today. I think that means we need to examine some of our fundamental assumptions about what schooling looks like and start trying some new things.

5. Oftentimes, what is old is new again in K-12 education. Power shifts from the states to the federal government and then, back again. Accountability has a moment and then, a backlash. What current education policies are made to stick?

The stickiness of policies depends less on the actual nuts and bolts of the legislation and more on the politics, on who can push a policy through or stop it from happening. Unfortunately, policies that usually stick are the ones that have powerful constituencies behind them, like wealthy parents or special interest groups like teachers unions. All too often, that means that underrepresented groups like poor communities of color don’t end up with the policies they need to get them the best schools, the most qualified teachers, or adequate resources.

No Child Left Behind really pulled back the curtain on states that set low standards and had yawning achievement gaps between racial and economic sub-groups. It left a mark on everyone and it couldn’t have happened without standardized testing and a mandate to report results.

Even though testing has been raked over the coals recently (sometimes for good reasons), the results raised a lot of good questions about civil rights, where to focus resources, how to turnaround persistently failing schools, and when to shut them down. I think that kind of transparency is powerful and it’s here to stay. It’s hard to imagine going back to a world where we don’t know how students in different sub-groups are performing academically. Whether transparency results in real accountability is a different question.

6. As someone who engages deeply with issues facing education reform, what advice would you give emerging leaders trying to make a positive change in K-12?

My advice would be to build a professional network based on genuine relationships with people unlike yourself. Whenever I find one of my fundamental beliefs being challenged, it’s usually because I had a candid conversation with someone who experiences life differently than I do. I encountered a lot of these conversations as an Education Pioneers Fellow, and now I actively try to disconfirm my strongest beliefs by talking with people who see the same issue from a different angle.

Many of us will eventually find ourselves in positions where we’re professional decision-makers, and the quality of our decisions depends on our ability to be comfortable with complexity and nuance. For me, that requires a heavy dose of empathy. My advice is to cultivate a diverse network and consult with others before making decisions that will affect students or communities.

7. Finally, you are forced to make a choice, what do you choose: coffee or tea; baseball or basketball; Firefox or Chrome; the beach or the mountains; Game of Thrones or House of Cards; Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat; Kindle or the real thing

I’m a coffee drinking, hockey playing, Chrome using, mountain loving, House of Cards watching, Tweeting, reader of dusty old books.


Originally published at www.educationpioneers.org on August 29, 2016.

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