Category Archives: Education Innovation

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part Four)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable.

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Hadley Bachman
Program Manager of Community Development, The Ohio Statewide Family Engagement Center at The Ohio State University

“If I could wave my magic wand and change one thing in education, I would change the ‘old way’ of thinking about family participation. We used to think about family engagement just as mom volunteering at a bake sale, or parents coming in when the principal calls them about a discipline problem. We still hang onto some of these old ideas when we assume families are hard to reach and need to be ‘fixed.’ I’d wave my wand and help school leaders and policymakers see the power of family voice in decision-making, leadership, and evaluation in schools. No one understands what motivates children better; no one sees the barriers in education more clearly; no one feels the effects of implicit bias more poignantly. Without family voice at the table, we stay stuck in outdated and misguided ideas about how to fix educational problems — doing ‘to’ instead of ‘with.’”

Mark Schneiderman
Senior Director, Future of Teaching & Learning

“I’d focus on resilience in schools, specifically on the thing that would radically change education but creates anxiety: the notion of schools addressing extendibility and redundancy. Viewing the classroom and teacher-student interaction as the only way teaching and learning can take place is by definition limiting both systemically and for individual students. Schools need enduring partnerships and to consider themselves a hub but not always the driver. For example, if an AP physics teacher retires, instead of a ‘now what’ moment, what if a school had an ongoing partnership with a non-traditional provider, or with a college physics department, or with an online provider? This is threatening to some, like unions, who view anything non-traditional as privatization of education. However, our colleges are learning that they must adjust or they will be out of business. As schools see families and FTE dollars leave and have to scramble to provide a digital academy option in the pandemic it begs the question: why not think outside the box and lean on those ensuring partnerships?”

Celine Coggins
Executive Director, Grantmakers for Education

“If I could wave a magic wand, I would require vaccine passports for all students over age 12 as well as the teachers and staff that interact with them. Our goal should be access to safe, in-person school for as many students as possible. The past two years have been incredibly disruptive. Students at the secondary level have very limited time left with access to free public education. We know masks, school cancellations due to positive COVID-19 cases, and general uncertainty can deter kids from school and toward other options. We know that the public system lost tens of thousands of older kids prematurely over the past 1.5 years. We cannot risk continuing to accelerate the dropout rate. We cannot risk another year of minimized learning and widening inequality of opportunity. We cannot risk people’s health unnecessarily. 

I recognize that some teachers unions have taken a stand against mandatory vaccinations. I hope they will shift their position and use their bully pulpit as a force for good in the service of public health. We as a society have a long history of supporting vaccination as a condition of school attendance in cases where the risk of spread greatly outweighs the risk of the vaccine. This should be no exception.”

Jared Bigham
Senior Advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce; Board Chair, Tennessee Rural Education Association; Active Member, National Rural Education Association

“I always say there are no ‘silver bullets’ in education, but I do believe there is a silver buckshot that could significantly change student success: establishing universal pre-K for all students, with an emphasis on kindergarten readiness. We constantly play a game of catch-up with more than half of our students across the country, when we could change the dynamic significantly by starting students on their K-12 path ready to learn on Day One. Look at kindergarten readiness scores for any feeder pattern, and you’ll see that same percentage play out almost exactly at every milestone marker we track, all the way to postsecondary.”

Brad Allan
K-12 Director, Hanover Research

“I want to address and solve the problem of measuring so-called non-cognitive skills and outcomes. I’ve always been on Team Non-Cogs in the imaginary competition between hard and soft skills, but the availability of measurable outcomes renders the competition moot (as well as imaginary). If we could magically get up and running on non-cognitive skills’ measurement, we could reverse-engineer ways to build them, and thereby equip students with skills that underlie success in life beyond the classroom.”

Leslye A. Arsht
Co-Founder and Board Chair, StandardsWork; Former Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education in Iraq

“I would have all high schools offer 10th graders* the opportunity to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to help students identify career areas of interest. Then, expand their Career Exploration programs (including dual enrollment arrangements with colleges and universities) with two goals in mind: 1) helping students identify career opportunities they are interested in and good at, and 2) introducing a wide array of mastery-based instructional approaches to keep 12th graders engaged in learning, especially for high-demand careers that don’t require a 4-year degree. 

*The U.S. Department of Defense would have to agree they ‘own’ the tests, and they can’t recruit students in 10th grade (they can identify high-performing students for recruiting in 11th and 12th grades). Currently, the test is offered by guidance counselors to students they think should (or want to) consider the military. But many students (especially ones who have little exposure in life to the countless kinds of career options that exist) would be so much better prepared to make education and life choices with access to these tools.”

Meredith Olson
President, VELA Education Fund

“The magic wand I would wave would allow students freedom to combine the settings, methods, and social arrangements (people) for their learning in novel ways. That would mean greater flexibility of time and place, and more opportunities for solo learning (getting lost in a book!), mixed-age learning, engagement with adults and family members, participation in community organizations, and enrichment opportunities. Less homework, less stress and deeper, more meaningful experiences and family time.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part Two)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable. 

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.  

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Laura LoGerfo
Assistant Director, National Assessment Governing Board (submitted as a parent and not on behalf of the Board)

“In order to address massive and unknown variations in learning, my magic wand would have schools and teachers implement universal diagnostic testing, with frequent assessment updates and teaching aimed at attaining fundamental skills and knowledge as swiftly as possible.  

The first step would be to get kids situated in the classroom by establishing a warm and welcoming environment for students to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. Almost immediately, kids would be given diagnostic assessments to determine their skills and knowledge in reading, math, science, and social studies. There would be no ceiling, no floor, no false constraints of what we mistakenly call ‘grade level,’ and no assumptions of what kids did or did not learn for the last 18 months. 

As a next step, teachers would immediately figure out plans for each kid. Group them by similarity (with flexibility built in as the weeks progress and diagnostic assessments are updated, enabling kids to move up, out, in, or over skill levels/topics) and by skills/knowledge, not age. Assign teachers by strength. Group size matters less than the effectiveness of the instructor. Use technology wisely and strategically.  

I’d incorporate this within my pet idea of ditching twelfth grade completely, except for those who need that year for final refinement of skills and knowledge. Instead, for that ‘senior year,’ 17-year-olds would spend their mornings working on life skills and reflecting on what they do in the afternoons, which would be working, volunteering, or interning (depending on family circumstances) with the elderly, with the young, or in nature. The 17-year-olds who qualify to work with youth would be assigned to assist teachers with tutoring so that differentiated instruction can be a real thing, rather than a myth.”

Mike Goldstein
Parent; School Founder; International Education Leader; General Education Polymath

“With a magic wand, I’d like to give students the choice to consume less K-12 public school, on an individual kid basis, with a very short leash/prove-it approach that’s easily revoked.    

Students would still attend school but less of it, possibly just three days each week. In exchange, individuals (not the school system) would take full accountability for their learning.  

At the elementary levels, students would attend school until lunchtime and then go home every day.  

High schoolers would unobtrusively come and go during class (no need to fake desire to use the bathroom). They could skip a whole class without penalty, while remaining accountable for the learning, and giving the teacher a timely heads-up.  

During these school breaks, high school students would have three choices. First, go to a school-designated lounge. Second, leave campus, go out for walks, or get coffee with a friend (many schools have had open campuses for seniors for a long time). Third, participate in anything fitness-related if a gym class isn’t already using the space/equipment.  

This idea starts with older students but works younger steadily, beginning with the uber-responsible kids and working toward the moderately responsible. It would require parent permission and freedoms would grow if students hit certain milestones.”

Joel Rose
Co-Founder and CEO, New Classrooms

“The pandemic laid bare the profound implications of reforms that were aimed exclusively at optimizing an approach to schooling born in the industrial era. It is time to redesign the way in which we do schooling in ways that by design are mindful of breakthroughs in brain science, that leverage advanced technological tools, that enable learning both within and outside the classroom, that meet the unique strengths and needs of each student, and that systemically support the development of the whole child.”

Yonatan Doron
Chief Partnership Officer, Branching Minds

“The pandemic shined a spotlight on a gross inequity with which most educators were already quite familiar: Many students (particularly students of color and students from rural communities and low-income families) still lack access to consistent, high-speed internet and devices at home. As more and more educational assessments, assignments, programming, and school-home communications have moved online, it’s even more important for policymakers and educational leaders to address the disparity so that all students can succeed.”

Daniel T. Willingham
Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia; Author of Why Don’t Students Like School?

“Modern physical plant for every school.”

Tim Daly
CEO, EdNavigator

“Unfunded teacher pension obligations. They are absorbing increasing amounts of education funding in some of our largest states and preventing badly needed investment and innovation.”

Michael J. Petrilli
President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

“My magic wand would be teaching dramatically more history, geography, and science in grades K-3 when the kiddos return this fall. That’s because it solves three problems for the price of one! First, alongside teaching foundational reading skills like phonics and phonemic awareness, beefing up kids’ content knowledge (and thus vocabulary) is the best way to boost their reading comprehension. Second, teaching little kids about the wonders of faraway places and faraway times, and the mysteries of the natural world, is the perfect way to avoid the temptation to do terrible, boring, ‘remedial’ education in the wake of the pandemic. And third, the early years are the ideal time to give kids a solid grounding in these subjects, without all of the controversy surrounding topics like Critical Race Theory, given that almost nobody thinks 6-year-olds are ready for all of that.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part One)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable. 

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.  

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Lauren M. Rhim
Executive Director and Co-Founder, The Center for Learner Equity

“If I had a magic wand, I would leverage this unique moment to 1) assess where students are and develop robust personalized learning plans for all students, 2) train teachers to effectively differentiate their instruction, and 3) leverage dramatic gains in utilizing technology to bring students back to schools that are actually designed to enable all students, including those with disabilities, to reach their full potential.”

Noelle Ellerson Ng
Associate Executive Director, Advocacy & Governance, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

“I’d fully fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. A fully funded IDEA returns hundreds of millions of dollars back to local district budgets — funds that can be used on general education. Special education students are general education students first, so it would truly be a win-win-win.

I’d also love a magic wand solution to reliable, accurate poverty indicators for education programs as well as increased efficiency in data collection, where federal, state, and local databases could aggregate and share, while also adhering to best practices around student data/privacy and Personally Identifiable Information.”

Chris Minnich
CEO, NWEA

“We have to take this massive infusion of federal cash to reshape how schools are funded. Most schools are driven by the amount of resources they have. Obviously, there are outliers that do more with less, but with more money in the system, it’d be a great chance to hold higher-spending districts harmless, and plus-up the other districts to allow them to compete for talent, among other things.”

Raymond C. Pierce
President and CEO, Southern Education Foundation

“If I could wave a magic wand, the education issue that I would address right now is stability in the governance of our schools and examining ways to improve how our schools are governed. Our public schools cannot improve if they are not governed effectively and efficiently. We need to find, develop, and replicate successful models of school governance that promote local control and community involvement. The instability that is common among school district superintendents and other leadership is highly disruptive to students’ education.

As we look at this opportunity to reset public education following the pandemic, any strategies that states and other jurisdictions implement for improving education ought to include an examination and development of models of governance that address that goal. Despite numerous changes and innovations in education over the last century, the model of school governance has not changed. How do we preserve local governance while increasing the stability that has proven elusive given the political nature of school governance in our system of elected school boards?”

Vanessa Steinkamp
Texas Educator; Parent

“As an educator, my biggest concern for the upcoming year deals with the exacerbation of structural inequities caused by disparate COVID-19 restrictions in schools. The baseline will be harder to navigate as some students learned remotely, some learned through homeschooling, some learned in hybrid models, and some learned in person. It creates another set of variables for teachers to remedy, and I worry about the psychological effects of students’ learning taking a back seat to disease abatement. I want learning to be fun, engaging, and multifaceted. The pandemic really stifled creativity and student engagement. 

As a parent, my primary concern will be pivoting back to a student-centered classroom focused on skill-based engagement versus teacher-driven content. With 3-foot masking rules, collaboration and interpersonal skills were all but forgotten. Lastly, I want to see less technology (no more Zooms or computer scoring) and more student-to-student interaction.”

Christian Taylor
Two-Time Olympic Gold Medalist; Four-Time World Champion in the Triple Jump; Classroom Champions Mentor

“I would encourage educators to push the importance of students having greater awareness of current affairs. There is a lot going on at the moment and many opinions flying around but very few facts to highlight and move situations forward. I believe students and teachers should be able to discuss current affairs, voice findings, and, for certain ages, propose solutions. This could help students process the things they are taking in around them but also give educators an idea of how these issues are affecting the student body. Some issues may be distant and the student may not have any connection to it, while others reflect real-time situations they are faced with in their lives/communities.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

How to Jumpstart Education’s Innovation Engine

Former Bellwarian Jason Weeby, who helped to develop and lead our work around education innovation, offers a series for Ahead of the Heard that makes the case for maintaining some pandemic-era education innovations. Learn more about Bellwether’s work here. Read more posts in this series here.

Can policymakers, funders, and education system leaders come together to find, foster, and spread new ways of teaching, learning, and organizing schools that came out of pandemic-era schooling?

I’m an optimist, so I can’t help but say yes. But I’m also a realist, so I think the most likely path to advancing innovation across the education sector is to link it to a broader plan to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss. I outlined five strategies for building the conditions for pandemic-era innovations to thrive in my last post; two of them stand out as critical to jumpstart the process: federal leadership and bold philanthropy

Ideally, fostering new schooling approaches would be part of any plan that President Biden and Secretary Cardona hatch for attacking learning loss. The need for a robust pandemic response provides Cardona justification to create the muscular and sophisticated innovation infrastructure at the Department of Education that dates back to at least 2007. High-profile federal leadership would also give big foundations, colleges and universities, and nonprofits something to rally around, especially if it were bipartisan. A clear and compelling vision, realistic goals, a roadmap for action, and a framework for collaboration with foundation heads, scholars, nonprofit leaders, and labor and parent unions, would go a long way toward rebuilding the trust in the federal government that the last administration lost.

Education philanthropy has moved away from K-12 in favor of pre-K and post-K in recent years. The fallout from the pandemic should force them to reconsider that move. Ideally, big national foundations would coordinate their funding efforts toward a campaign against learning loss, as they did in 2010 to support the i3 program. Suppose there’s no government effort with which to coordinate. In that case, funders could create a collective time-bound fund that supports proven efforts like expanded learning time and high-dosage tutoring in addition to more exploratory programs and models. The fast, no-strings-attached, equity-focused, big money brand of philanthropy that MacKenzie Scott has exemplified should inspire funders to be bold and swift.

Fortunately, it looks like these conversations have already begun. The Walton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Zoom, and private donors have teamed up to pilot high-dosage tutoring to stem learning loss. And a BIPOC-led coalition of organizations including Digital Promise, Camelback Ventures, Education Leaders of Color, Pahara Institute, Surge Institute, and UnidosUS has formed with the goal of developing “an aggressive action agenda” to mitigate learning losses for Black and Brown students.

To curry support for his American Rescue Plan, President Biden tweeted yesterday: “The risk in this moment isn’t that we do too much — it’s that we don’t do enough.” The same sentiment applies to rebuilding and improving our education system once the pandemic subsides. 

If we don’t do enough to seed, foster, and share ideas that can improve schools, our collective desire to return to normal and the gravitational pull of the status quo will keep education innovation on the fringe. Students who desperately needed better schools before the pandemic will simply be relegated back to them with more academic ground to make up.

When it comes to making our schools more effective and equitable through innovation, federal policymakers and philanthropists play an outsized role in jumpstarting some much-needed movement. 

How to Tack Against the Four Headwinds to Pandemic-Era Education Innovations

Former Bellwarian Jason Weeby, who helped to develop and lead our work around education innovation, offers a series for Ahead of the Heard that makes the case for maintaining some pandemic-era education innovations. Learn more about Bellwether’s work here. Read more posts in this series here.

To make a sailboat tack to sail into a headwind, the sailor must execute a specific set of motions in sequence to avoid being hit by the swinging boom or tipping over. On large sailboats, multiple crew members must act in concert to change directions successfully. The same is true for education leaders who want to create an environment where good ideas that emerged during the pandemic can be proven out and, hopefully, benefit the students who need them the most.

For any changes to schools and systems to take root and remain durable, district and charter leaders, policymakers, parents, and funders will need to act in concert over the next 6-12 months. Here’s a proposal for where to begin.

Start With the Needs and Desires of Students and Families

For innovations to stick, they can’t just be different from the status quo: they have to confer some advantages over it. The best advantage that we can hope for is improved academic and life outcomes for low-income, Black, and Latino students.

We should be conducting empathy interviews to understand what parts of school families are eager to go back to, what’s surprised them, what could be better with a little improvement, and what they’d happily leave behind once the pandemic is under control. (Look for a toolkit on the topic coming from The Learning Accelerator this month.) It’s in these answers that a new normal will emerge. We should extend our human-centered inquiry to create education policies informed directly by the people that will be most affected by them. Educators and innovators choose to spend their time and energy should stem from students and families’ needs and desires rather than pre-baked agendas, efficiency ploys, educator convenience, flashy ideas, or funders’ whims.

This approach has two distinct advantages. First, we’ll articulate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions through regular interactions with students and families. Second, it builds trust with a constituency that has a massive influence on determining which innovations are adopted, leading me to my next tack.

Activate and Organize a Natural Constituency — Parents — to Influence Policies

A few months before the pandemic, I attended a meeting of San Francisco parents advocating for better schools in Southeast San Francisco. Through an interpreter translating Spanish to English, I heard a common frustration of an inability to know the quality of curricula and instruction in their children’s schools. Principals and teachers were keeping parents at arm’s length to avoid scrutiny. Now, those parents and millions more like them have been exposed to their children’s education as lessons occur in their living room and instructional materials are a click away. Parents unhappy with the level of communication, quality of instruction, or rigor of curricula will be looking for better opportunities for their kids.

More privileged parents used private schools, pods, or online platforms to curate the kind of personalized learning experience they wanted for their children. It may have been the first time they had to confront their opportunity hoarding as they accessed resources out of reach for other families.

Both cases point to a natural constituency just waiting to be activated and organized.

And organization is key. As Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham recently put it, “A basic rule in politics is organized and focused power beats disorganized sentiment most of the time.” States, districts, and teachers’ unions are organized and focused in most places. With the exception of some community-based organizations and newer outfits like the National Parents Union, parents are not. Harnessing the energy from parents who want to improve school systems will require them to have their own organizations. Reformers will have to broaden their tent to include them, engage them in authentic dialogue, seek common ground, and act together where there are common interests.

In their seminal book on the history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban note that many challenges to traditional schooling fail because proposed changes are too “intramural.” That is, they’re popular among reformers but lack political sway and are out of touch with families and the broader citizenry. This has been the education reform community’s blind spot for decades as well-intentioned, highly educated, and mostly white people tried to create better education opportunities for students who did not share their advantages.

Genuine inclusion requires patience, a characteristic not usually demonstrated by funders and leaders who love to say that they are driven by urgency. This tension introduces the risk of tokenizing parents and students to advance an agenda that can erode trust and stymie promising improvement efforts. However, when done well, parents and educators working together can create more responsive schools and systems and build a powerful bloc for future political battles.

Advocate for Federal and State Governments to Lead on Education Innovation

In its first days, the Biden administration is trying to pass a massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that includes $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen safely and “meet students’ academic, mental health and social, and emotional needs in response to COVID-19.” Despite its massive price tag, Biden’s proposed relief package is a short-term solution that will only cover costs through the summer. Even so, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education Miguel Cordona should require SEAs to set aside 1% of current and future coronavirus relief funding to find, test, and spread promising education innovations, and provide them with guidance for how to do it. Districts should be encouraged to do the same.

Relief bills are necessary to meet the crisis’s needs. Still, schools will need more federal leadership to address the learning loss that will affect millions of students for years — an Operation Warp Speed for education.

An obvious place to start would be to provide clarity and guidance to SEAs addressing which flexibilities they will retain for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Without it, states and districts can’t plan thoughtfully for recovery and for leveraging innovations. Unless and until they have the confidence and funds to continue to innovate, the implicit message will be to wait for the pandemic to subside and default to pre-pandemic schooling.

The origins of Biden’s campaign slogan, “Build Back Better,” could provide a helpful roadmap for a larger initiative. The phrase dates back to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The concept of building back better is “an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” In other words, it’s foolish to rebuild the same infrastructure in the wake of a disaster; the next version should be an improvement. Applying this approach to America’s schools would necessitate fostering innovation or running the risk of building back an inequitable school system.

Cordona could make innovation a priority of his new agenda by beefing up the Education Innovation and Research program and finally starting up the much talked about but never actualized ARPA-ED R&D initiative. The Department of Education could play a lead role in creating shared principles, language, standards, and framework for education innovation and provide SEA’s with guidance on how to implement innovation practices. If Biden triples Title I funding as he’s promised, SEA’s could use their school improvement set-aside for innovation activities. Additionally, they can play more of a support role by waiving onerous regulations that constrain innovation activities and creating strategic partnerships with organizations that can provide technical support for finding and rigorously testing new ideas.

Building the federal innovation and R&D apparatus so that it’s responsive and rigorous is a challenging task by itself. Results from the Investing in Innovation program (i3) were mixed and translating an approach that works in health care and defense isn’t straightforward. Even so, if the administration is up for the challenge and goes in eyes wide open, it could leverage the Democratic in control of Congress, increased federal funding, and the country needing new ways to accelerate student learning to build the federal engine for education innovation.

Step Up Philanthropic Investments in Innovation and R&D

Private foundations could be playing a much larger role in education innovation than they are. In fact, funding R&D and innovation is one of the main roles of philanthropy in a democracy. According to Paul Vallely, author of Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, philanthropy has three vital functions: “It can support the kind of higher-risk research and innovation generally avoided by government and business. It can plug gaps left by market failure and government incompetence. And it can fund the nonprofits that mediate between the individual, the market, and the state.” Yet most philanthropies fund established nonprofits, essentially ignoring people with novel ideas who need support to test and refine them. This isn’t a new observation.

In 2015, Matt Candler pointed out that philanthropy was largely neglecting the first three stages of innovation: defining good problems, testing new solutions, and going to market. Not much has changed in the last five years. Without more foundations out there providing $1,000 to $250,000 “dream capital” grants, good ideas will die on the vine. Teachers who have developed new methods during the pandemic will never have a chance to share them. Principals who want to pilot new school models that combine the best of distance and in-person learning won’t have the chance to prove their concepts.

The good news is there are already good examples of effective seed funders who can help build the capacity of the sector, such as NewSchools Venture Fund, New Profit, and the Draper, Richards, Kaplan Foundation. An established foundation allocating 10% of their giving to seeding the sector with new ideas with follow-on funding for those that prove effective would catalyze education’s innovation engine.

Private philanthropy should also fund R&D projects that combine basic research, applied research, and experimental development. When ARPA-Ed failed to materialize under the Obama Administration, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up to launch the $50 million EF+Math Program, which provides grants for multi-year projects to “co-design and develop new approaches to build math-relevant executive function skills during high-quality math instruction.” Endeavors like this are more complex and time-consuming than funding entrepreneurs with promising ideas, so they require big money and patience.

Act While the Overton Window is Open

Although the timing for any effort precipitated by a public health crisis is difficult to describe as “good,” we’re at a moment when ideas that were politically or socially unacceptable only a year ago are now safe for system leaders and politicians to pursue. In other words, the Overton Window is open. In less than a year, the concept of learning from anywhere at any time has moved from being radical to acceptable and even sensible for many families. Educators should be advocating to carry over innovations into the post-pandemic world now as vaccines roll out, scientific consensus builds for returning to in-person instruction, districts are planning for the fall, and new practices have had enough time to show some evidence of improving achievement, equity, or efficiency.

The popularization of new practices and their enshrinement in public policies will likely take much more time, familiarity, and evidence. That’s okay. In the short-term, the focus should be on maintaining the conditions that can allow teachers and principals to test new ideas. Securing waivers from local, state, and policies that give schools the freedom to experiment while holding the line on evidence of success and accountability is an immediate commonsense goal. The broader political landscape matters a lot here. It may be difficult for education issues to earn legislators’ attention while the pandemic rages; childcare, healthcare, and economic stability are at the forefront of people’s minds; and racial divisions deepen. Again, linking education initiatives to these issues will be important for their success.

When it comes to clearing a path for promising education innovations, time is clearly of the essence. A common aim, communication, cooperation, and action are all necessary too. Can policymakers, funders, and education system leaders come together to make it happen? I look into it in my final post of the series.

You can read more from this series here.