Category Archives: Education Innovation

Three Reasons to Expect Little on Innovative Assessments — and Why That’s Not Such a Bad Thing

Photo by Josh Davis via Flickr

Next week is the deadline for states to submit an application for the innovative assessment pilot to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If you missed this news, don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows ED to grant assessment flexibility to up to seven states to do something different from giving traditional end-of-year standardized tests. The best example of an innovative state assessment system is New Hampshire, which allows some districts to give locally designed performance-based assessments. These assessments look more like in-class activities than traditional standardized tests, and are developed and scored by teachers.

Two years ago, Education Week called the innovative assessment pilot “one of the most buzzed-about pieces” of ESSA because it could allow states to respond to testing pushback while still complying with the new federal law. But now only four states have announced they will apply, and expectations are subdued at best.

Why aren’t more states interested an opportunity to get some leeway on testing? Here are three big reasons:

  1. Most states are playing it safe on ESSA and assessments are no exception

When my colleagues at Bellwether convened an independent review of ESSA state plans with 45 education policy experts, they didn’t find much ambition or innovation in state plans — few states went beyond the requirements of the law, and some didn’t even do that. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has approved the majority of state plans, recently criticized states for plans that “only meet the bare minimum” and don’t take full advantage of the flexibility offered in the law.

Several states responded that they were actually doing more than they had indicated in their plans. As my colleague Julie Squire pointed out last year, putting something extra in an ESSA plan could limit a state’s options and bring on more federal monitoring. If most states were fairly conservative and compliance-based with their big ESSA plans, there’s little reason to think they’ll unveil something new and surprising in a small-scale waiver application.

Additionally, the law includes several requirements for an innovative assessment that might be difficult for states to meet. For example, innovative tests have to be comparable across school districts, they have to meet the needs of special education students and English learners, and the pilot programs have to be designed to scale up statewide. If states have any doubts they can meet that bar, they probably won’t apply. Continue reading

Education Policy, Meet Human-Centered Design

In a lot of ways, the worlds of education policy and human-centered design couldn’t be more dissimilar. The former relies heavily on large-scale quantitative analysis and involves a long, complex public process. The latter is deeply qualitative, fast moving, creative, and generative. Policy professionals come up through the ranks in public agencies, campaigns, and think tanks. Deep issue expertise and sophisticated deductive reasoning are highly valued. Designers come from an array of backgrounds — the more unorthodox the better. Success for them comes from risk-taking, novel ideas, and synthesizing concepts across time, space, and sectors.

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design comparing policy and design methods

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design

I’m fortunate to have spent some time in both worlds. They each appeal to different parts of my personality. Policy analysis affords me order and confidence in answers based on facts. Design lets me flex my creative muscles, fail fearlessly, and have confidence in answers based on experience.

So when a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave me the opportunity to write a paper about bringing these two worlds together, I jumped at the chance — I knew that each could benefit from the other.

Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design makes the case that policy practitioners can use human-centered methods to create better education policies because they are informed by the people whose lives will be most affected by them.

The underpinning hypothesis is that 1) co-designing policies with constituents can generate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions, 2) human-centered design can generate a wider variety of potential solutions leading to innovation, and 3) the process can mitigate or reverse constituent disenfranchisement with the lawmaking process.

Human-centered policy design is still a new practice, however, and there are still important questions to work out, like how to make sure the process is inclusive and where exactly human-centered design methods can enhance policy research and design.

Luckily, SXSW EDU, a huge national conference focused on innovation in education, is a perfect place to test new ideas. So I reached out to Maggie Powers, director of STEAM Innovation at Agnes Irwin School and member of IDEO’s Teachers Guild, and Matt Williams, vice president of Education at Goodwill of Central Texas, to explore what it would look like to apply human-centered design to policies that affect high school students whose education suffers because of lost credits when they transfer schools. Our session will pressure test some of the ideas that emerged in the paper. The results will inform the next phase of this work, which will help policy practitioners implement human-centered design methods. Keep an ear to the ground for that!

Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes

When I was a high school teacher, my sophomore and junior students routinely told a tired joke: What’s big, yellow, and full of freshmen? The school bus. There was a stigma attached to riding the school bus. For students who fancied themselves on the cusp of adulthood, the school bus was a vestige of childhood, and they avoided it if they could.

That attitude contrasts with the reverence my own elementary school-aged children have for the bus. All things transit fascinate them, but the school bus holds a special status. It is as magical as Ms. Frizzle, and the bus driver is a superhero. She arrives each day with a big smile and a wave, greeting her tiny charges with their oversized backpacks, and maneuvering her iconic vehicle down darkened city streets.

These conflicting views of school buses symbolize a conflict in school transportation. School buses and school transportation are at once a nostalgic and iconic symbol of American education and a challenged system that often fails to serve students, schools, and communities as well as it could.

Today we release “Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes,” a short animated video that encapsulates the challenges and complex considerations we must grapple with to improve our school transportation systems so that they meet the needs of students, families, schools, and communities. Watch it below:

This video pairs well with Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century, our 2016 paper which dug into the structure, function, successes, and challenges of school transportation systems across the country.

In spite of dramatic changes in transportation (e.g., Uber, Hybrids and electric vehicles, and self-driving cars?) and in schools themselves, school transportation systems haven’t changed much in decades. Addressing school transportation challenges isn’t simple, though. These systems must balance competing, important priorities and interests like student safety, cost, equity, environmental impact, and other factors.

Please watch, enjoy, and share. And Magic School Bus fans should look for the subtle homage to Ms. Frizzle’s world.

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