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Last month, Hillary Clinton laid out an initiative on technology and innovation at Galvanize, a nationally-recognized technology incubator in Denver. The proposals are wide-ranging, from talent to cyber security — and, surprisingly, may include what’s perhaps her most detailed K-12 plan around STEM education.
The slate of proposals is impressive and it includes ideas that will keep many sectors competitive domestically and globally. But for some reason, many of the strategies that Clinton proposes for transforming manufacturing, transportation, energy, and healthcare don’t explicitly apply to the education sector.
Instead, Clinton’s platform positions the education sector as a means to an end, preparing a knowledgeable workforce that will advance other sectors — but the sector is not recognized as one that would benefit from serious innovation efforts that others enjoy.
This perception is indicative of how most people, even reformers, perceive the education sector. Perhaps it’s because the U.S. education system is so localized, because people and lessons from the private sector are suspect, or because there isn’t a lot of exposure to successful and responsible innovation efforts. Whatever the reason, this perception is keeping the education sector from evolving and improving.
Our country’s worst performing schools and chronically under-performing districts do their best to make incremental improvements, because the K-12 education sector in America lacks the kind of robust public and private infrastructure to take on serious innovation.
For all of the rhetoric about staying competitive with Singapore and Finland, scant attention is given to the role that innovation can play in making that happen. Research, development, and innovation-friendly policies are critical in keeping other sectors competitive. Why shouldn’t that be true for education?
While the context may differ, the concepts that drive innovation in other sectors can and should apply to the education sector. Clinton’s campaign could fill its vacuous K-12 education platform with ideas it already has in its innovation and technology platform.
Here are a few of her own strategies that Clinton should apply to education.
Increase Access to Capital for Growth-Oriented Small Businesses and Start-Ups, with a Focus on Minority, Women, and Young Entrepreneurs
There’s a lot in Clinton’s technology proposal — incubator creation, student loan deferral for entrepreneurs, and global recruiting for STEM professionals and entrepreneurs — all of which have applications in education. Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart and David Fu of 4.0 Schools make the case that intermediaries like incubators, accelerators, and funders are key to making an education ecosystem thriving and dynamic. My own project underway at Bellwether to measure the level of innovation in education ecosystems supports this notion. Clinton’s announcement at Galvanize signals their importance. When combined with strategies to recruit entrepreneurs, startup assistance for organizations that launch new school models, programs, and products can get a city or state’s innovation flywheel spinning.
Invest in Science and Technology R&D and Make Tech Transfer Easier
According to the Clinton campaign’s brief, “Hillary believes the benefits of government investment in research and development (R&D) are profound and irrefutable.” Yet her commitment to R&D doesn’t extend to the education sector. Right now, the U.S. invests only around three percent of its federal education budget on R&D, and the trends don’t look like that’ll change any time soon. The R&D obligations for the federal Department of Education have been decreasing steadily since 2006. The DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement’s 2017 budget is down 17 percent from 2016 compared to a department-wide reduction of just 0.32 percent. Closing the opportunity gap has proven more difficult than putting a man on the moon, so perhaps our investments in innovation should match the enormity of the challenges educators face.
Ensure Benefits are Flexible, Portable, and Comprehensive as Work Changes
In a recent blog post, my colleague Max Marchitello points out that most teacher pension plans restrict the mobility and savings potential of teachers, and Clinton’s proposal to create flexible, portable, and comprehensive benefits to workers should apply to the second largest workforce in America.
“The teacher workforce — like nearly every labor force in America — has evolved considerably. No longer are teachers educators for life, nor do they live in a single state decade after decade. Teachers are mobile. They enter and exit the workforce at different points in their lives. Nevertheless, teacher pension systems have persisted for more than a century with more or less the same structure. By increasing flexibility and portability for teacher retirement benefits, we can ensure that teachers don’t have to choose between working with kids and earning a healthy start on retirement saving.”
Reduce Barriers to Entry and Promote Healthy Competition
One of the more interesting, powerful, and likely controversial ideas for increasing innovation in the education sector is to make sure entrepreneurs don’t have to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to implement new ideas. The brief states that,
“Hillary will challenge state and local governments to identify, review, and reform legal and regulatory obligations that protect legacy incumbents against new innovators. Examples include state regulations governing automotive dealers that stifle innovation and restrict market access, or local rules governing utility-pole access that restrain additional fiber and small cell broadband deployment.”
A classic example of this happening in the education sector is when school districts (legacy incumbents) make access to facilities for charter schools difficult or impossible to prevent their openings or expansions. So many policies and special interests exist specifically to protect legacy incumbents that pursuing this with seriousness would shake up the K-12 education space considerably.
Open up More Government Data for Public Uses
Data is essential for good decision-making, but accessing and analyzing government data in the education sector is often a dreadful experience, a topic about which I’ve recently written. Opening up more government data for public use is important, but the federal government can also use its heft to collect and analyze complicated quantitative data. A recent report on K-12 labor productivity by the Bureau of Labor Statistics signals that this may occur more in the future. Clinton could take a more aggressive stance and require states to conform to specific data reporting standards and timelines.
When ESSA is shifting power to states, quarterbacking innovation efforts would be a way for the federal government to extend their influence beyond policing states accountability systems. And, the U.S. Department of Education already has an office to do it.
The DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) is a natural home for these activities, but a mindset shift would be required there to make them happen. It would have to focus more on creating and executing on policies that create the conditions for others to implement new ideas instead of funding programs with very specific aims. Their Investing in Innovation (I3) grant competition, Race to the Top District, and credit enhancement service for charter school facilities are example of steps in the right direction.
Realizing the vision to make the U.S. education system equitable and excellent will require new ideas and new ideas happen through innovation activities. Other industries have made innovation a central strategy to stay competitive and there are many lessons that can inform the education sector. If Clinton should become president and wants to modernize the federal role in K-12 education, she’d benefit from looking at her own proposals for other sectors for a path forward.