Category Archives: Education Innovation

Want to Bring Equity to Rural Schools? Start With Ed Tech Infrastructure

Last month, EdWeek published a Q&A with education technology experts discussing the future of technology use in classrooms. Their comments echoed what I learned during my teacher training: data-driven instruction is essential for student growth, and ed tech is the key to delivering quality, personalized learning.

Yet what many of those experts failed to mention is that the best learning technology is only successful if the basic infrastructure is in place — and for rural students, this lack of infrastructure has turned into a technology equity gap.

One in five students attends school in a rural district, where teachers often lack access to reliable internet and hardware. Rural schools located in low-socioeconomic communities struggle to provide teachers and students with updated technology. When teachers are able to introduce ed tech into the classroom, the new devices are often not supported with necessary broadband or storage improvements.

Two of my 4th grade students collaborating in the computer lab.

I saw this firsthand as a rural educator in South Carolina, where frequent computer failures made it nearly impossible to implement technology-enabled personalized learning. In my former school district, using ed technology wasn’t just suggested — for many classes, it was required. Each week, my class went to the computer lab to work on a literacy program purchased by the school. When the computers worked, the program was a hit — it allowed my students to advance at their own pace and to focus on personalized standards and skills.

Each time we visited the lab, however, a new problem emerged: often, the internet didn’t work at all. If the internet worked, then half of the desktops were down. Sometimes we’d make it all the way through the login stage before the desktops began crashing, and I’d watch as a sea of hands flew up around the room. After five failed visits, I quit going to the lab completely.

One-to-one iPad programs and community-wide internet may be part of ed tech’s future, but for my former students, it is far from a working reality. And this isn’t just a rural issue: students and teachers in some underserved urban communities also lack the necessary tech infrastructure.

Some districts are taking on this infrastructure challenge: one county in rural Virginia is building a DIY broadband network that will bring internet access to schools and homes in remote areas of the district. Other districts are increasing their broadband capability through the federal government’s E-Rate program, which allows rural schools to apply for technology infrastructure funding. Efforts like these demonstrate that improving a school’s tech infrastructure is a possibility for all schools, regardless of location.

As the new school year approaches, principals and administrators will continue looking for ways to bring ed tech into classrooms. While their efforts are valuable, I challenge these leaders to consider if their schools have the necessary technology capability — and if not, how they will first build a working infrastructure to benefit students and teachers alike.

All children deserve the opportunity for personalized learning, but until underserved students receive the same basic access as their more affluent peers, the tech equity gap will continue to widen.

What DeVos Could Be Saying About Education Innovation (But Isn’t)

Last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed the attendees of the ASU-GSV Summit, an education technology conference attended by many system leaders, funders, and entrepreneurs. By most accounts, the pre-written remarks were tightly controlled, and the session didn’t allow for real questions about her vision for education innovation. (Here’s the video of her session and a rundown of the scene via EdSurge.)

This week, education leaders from across the country convene at the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit. DeVos isn’t slated to speak. And as Matt Barnum notes, “Notably, there’s not much about Trump, DeVos, or private school vouchers on the NSVF agenda, suggesting that the conference may steer clear of the topic — at least officially.”

These two major events could have been DeVos’ best opportunity to chart a course for the federal government’s role in education innovation in front of forward-thinking education professionals.

Not only does it seem that her ship has sailed, DeVos has confirmed that her view of K-12 innovation consists mainly of charters, vouchers, ed-tech, and deregulation. Reasonable people can debate whether these policies have merit, but they certainly don’t qualify as a serious education innovation agenda.

As I’ve written before, a serious education innovation agenda would invest federal funds in rigorous research and development (R&D), incentivize states to spur activities that accelerate innovation, and use the federal bully pulpit to spotlight achievement gaps and chronically failing systems. Without innovation-specific conditions and activities that drive continuous creation, the sector won’t be able to improve at a rate of change commensurate to the challenges it faces.

Here are some things DeVos can implement at the federal level to make the U.S. Department of Education an innovation machine: Continue reading

This Financing Model Could Make School Buses Cheaper and Greener, But No One Is Using It

Every day, nearly 500,000 school buses transport students to and from school in districts across the country. Many of these buses are older diesel models that release dangerous emissions, harming both the environment and student health. While cleaner and cheaper alternative fuels like propane, compressed natural gas (CNG), and electric exist, higher upfront costs prevent most districts from transitioning.

The good news: there’s an increasingly popular financial tool out there that could solve this problem.

Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are typically used to finance programs that can generate both societal benefits and cost savings, particularly programs administered by nonprofit organizations and government entities. Under the SIB model, private investors provide initial capital in exchange for a return funded from eventual cost savings. Those investors, and not taxpayers, absorb the financial losses if these programs do not achieve projected savings. SIBs have been used to fund programs related to prisoner recidivism, high-quality preschool, and reducing common health hazards, with varying levels of success. As of 2016, nine SIBs operate in the United States, with 50 more in development, representing over $90 million in private investment.

As we describe in our recent report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” the benefits of switching to buses that run on alternative fuels are well-documented. And they cost less to run, benefiting district budgets. However, in contrast to the public transit sector, where more than one in three buses runs on alternative fuels or hybrid technology, uptake in the school transportation sector has been limited. Of all buses sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2014, only six percent were alternatively fueled. In 2012, that figure was less than three percent.

This is largely due to the additional costs associated with shifting away from diesel. Propane buses cost about five percent more than their diesel counterparts; that figure is 25 percent for buses run on compressed natural gas. Electric buses, which offer the most cost savings and environmental benefit, are more expensive still — often costing an additional $100,000 to $120,000 more than diesel buses.

Transitioning to these buses may also require infrastructure expenditures in the form of fueling and charging stations. For example, case studies from the Department of Energy estimate that installing a propane fueling station costs between $55,000 and $250,000, depending on the station’s size and equipment.

This is where SIBs can help. For SIBs to work, projects have to attract investors by demonstrating the potential for a return on investment. A number of case studies have provided evidence of the potential cost savings of switching to alternatively fueled buses, savings sufficient to offset the higher upfront cost. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory found savings of between $400 and $3,000 per bus per year associated with replacing diesel with propane, with the incremental costs of the vehicles and related infrastructure being offset over a period of three to eight years. And researchers from the University of Delaware have shown that using an electric school bus instead of a diesel bus could save a district roughly $230,000 per bus over a 14-year lifespan, with the initial investment being recovered after five years.

Alternatively fueled buses are cheaper to fuel, operate, and maintain than diesel buses. Alternative fuels cost less than diesel, and their prices remain relatively stable compared to diesel, which varies with the fluctuation of crude oil prices. There are also a variety of savings from maintenance costs. These buses use less oil and cheaper filters, and unlike their diesel counterparts, they do not require additional treatment to meet federal vehicle emissions standards, potentially saving thousands of dollars in maintenance each year.

Electric buses that use vehicle-to-grid technology — which allows vehicles to communicate and interact with the overall power grid, rather than just draw a charge from it — can even become “prosumers,” meaning they return energy to the grid. The energy stored in the buses’ batteries can be tapped to lower a facility’s electricity bill.

A SIB model for bus replacement could work as follows:

Graphic by authors

SIBs are not without criticism: they may limit the savings that governments could reap from traditional means of public investment. This is the other side of the equation when privatizing potential risk: governments also privatize some of the reward.

However, to date, most districts have not been able to invest the initial capital needed to replace their diesel fleets. Implementing a SIB model could help speed up this process without further draining district budgets. Such a program would not only benefit the environment: districts could also reinvest the savings to improve other aspects of their school transportation systems, or funnel those dollars back into classrooms. It could be a win-win.

To learn more about the current state of the school transportation sector, including how it impacts the environment, read Bellwether’s new report: “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.”

Dispatch from #EP2016

The Charter Model Goes to Preschool

Richmond College Prep emphasizes a student-centered atmosphere.

Photo courtesy of Richmond College Prep

Over the past 20 years, both charter schools and prekindergarten have taken on increasingly prominent roles in the schooling of America’s children. Charter schools in 43 states now serve more than 2.6 million students — roughly six percent of all students attending public schools. And more than two-thirds of four-year-olds attend some form of public or privately funded preschool, with 1.4 million of them enrolled in state-funded pre-k programs.

As separate reforms, charter schools and pre-k produce strong, positive results for high-need children. But what happens if we marry high-performing charter schools with high-quality pre-k? Could the combination of these two reforms produce a result better than the sum of its parts?

Continue reading