Category Archives: Education Innovation

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?

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Reactions to the U.S. Education Innovation Index

One of the main goals of creating and publishing the U.S. Education Innovation Index Prototype and Report was to stimulate evidence-based conversations about innovation in the education sector and push the field to consider more sophisticated tools, methods, and practices. Since its release three weeks ago at the Digital Promise Innovation Clusters convening in Providence, the index has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception.

I’m grateful for the many fruitful one-on-one conversations that have pushed my thinking, raised interesting questions, and provoked new ideas.

Here are a few takeaways on the report itself:

People love radar charts. And I’m one of those people. In the case of the innovation index, radar charts were a logical choice for visualizing nine dimensions and a total score. Here they are again in all their glory.

City Comparisons

Readers weren’t always clear on the intended audience or purpose. This concern came up often and hit close to home as someone who strives to produce work that is trusted, relevant, timely, and useful. One of the benefits of the prototype is that we can test the tool’s utility before expanding the scope of the project to more cities or an even more complicated theoretical framework. So far the primary audience for the index funders, policy makers, superintendents, education leaders, and city leaders have demonstrated interest in learning more about the thinking behind the index and how it can be applied to their work. Ultimately I hope it will influence high-stakes funding, policy, and strategic decisions.

The multidimensionality of innovation challenges assumptions. When I explain that we measured the innovativeness of education sectors in four cities New Orleans, San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Kansas City, MO inevitably, the next question I get is “how do they rank?” Instead of answering, I ask my conversant for his/her rankings. I’ve had this exchange dozens of times, and in almost every case, New Orleans topped the list because of the unique charter school environment. When I then explain that the index was sector agnostic it doesn’t give preference to charter, district, or private schools people immediately reconsider and put San Francisco in the number one slot. What this tells me is that many people associate innovation with one approach rather than treating it as the multidimensional concept that it is. This misperception has real policy and practice implications, and I hope the index provides nuance to the thinking of decision makers.

Dynamism” and “district deviance” are intriguing but need more research. Two of the measures that I’m most excited about are also ones that have invited scrutiny and criticism: dynamism and district deviance. Dynamism is the entry and exit of schools, nonprofits, and businesses from a city’s education landscape. Too much dynamism can destabilize communities and economies. Too little can keep underperforming organizations operating at the expense of new and potentially better ones. In the private sector, healthy turnover rates are between five and 20 percent, depending on the industry. We don’t know what that number is for education yet, but it’s likely on the low end of the range. More research is needed. Our district deviance measure assumes that districts that spend their money differently compared to their peers and are trying new things, which is good. It’s a novel approach, but its accuracy is vulnerable if the assumptions don’t pan out. Again more research is needed.

Measure more cities! Everyone wants to see more cities measured with the index for one of two reasons. The first is that they want to know how their city is doing on our nine dimensions. The second is that they want to compare cities to each other. Both make my heart sing. Knowing how a specific city measures up is the first step to improving it. Knowing how it compares to others is the first step to facilitate knowledge transfer and innovation diffusion.
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