Tag Archives: #InnovationAfterCOVID

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.

The Four Headwinds Threatening Pandemic-Era Education Innovation

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.

In my last post, I outlined how teachers, principals, and education system leaders responded to the pandemic with millions of experiments that have the potential to strengthen, diversify, and augment traditional schooling if — and only if — innovators, system leaders, and policymakers heed the lessons. Unfortunately, there are four strong headwinds that could stop them from blooming into durable innovations. 

A Deep Desire to Return to Normal

After months of physical isolation, prolonged stress and anxiety, upended routines, financial uncertainty, and, for some, death and grief, people just want to go back to normal. Our collective desire to return to pre-pandemic life is the force most likely to drown promising education innovations.

Few routines are more emblematic of normalcy as sending children off to school in the morning and welcoming their return in the afternoon. For many families, life will feel like it’s back to normal when their kids can safely go into a school building to be taught by three-dimensional teachers every day. Not only do schools provide a safe and structured place for students to learn, but they also provide childcare that enables the American workforce to go to work. We’ve learned the hard way that when childcare is removed, those who don’t work remotely are put in a position to choose between their employment and their children’s safety and support. Women, who provide the lion’s share of childcare duties, have left the workforce in droves since the pandemic began. Having their children, especially young ones, learning at home is taxing. 

Educators are burnt out too. An EdWeek Research Center survey found that teacher morale is low and, “32 percent of teachers are reporting that they are likely to leave their jobs this year even though they would have been unlikely to do so prior to the pandemic.” State and district leaders have been through the wringer for nearly a year as well. The steady drumbeat of high-stakes decisions coupled with new ways of assessing, teaching, and supporting students takes a toll even on those who get excited by new instructional and school models. If we knew that student mental health and academic performance were improving, all of the tumults may be worth it, but projections of learning loss from CREDO, NWEA, McKinsey and others are worrisome. A recent analysis of standardized test results from 18 school districts in California gives credence to those projections. State-level student outcome data will take some time to materialize (if it does at all). 

A System Built for Stability, Not Innovation

With a few exceptions, districts, like most taxpayer-funded public agencies, don’t engage in innovation activities. They’re structured to provide services and maintain compliance, two functions that share little in common with innovation. This is important, to be sure. Operating safe and effective schools is a complex enterprise and taxpayers should have confidence that their taxes are being spent responsibly. Yet, most school systems are so focused on executing their core business that they fail to concurrently look for, develop, and assimilate promising new ideas, a concept management experts Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman call organizational ambidexterity

Even districts like Denver and San Francisco that had in-house innovation labs struggled to translate their findings into the broader system. Principals who developed a high-potential school model that deviated from the standard ones had to lobby for exemptions to rigid requirements around instructional time, school calendars, and student-teacher ratios. If they succeed in doing so, they still run the risk of their effort being pigeonholed as a pilot or magnet instead of being adopted more broadly.

There are some reasons to be hopeful about school districts’ ability to foster innovation, however. Chief innovation officers are becoming more commonplace, which signals that superintendents are serious about seeking out needs and finding new solutions for them. Unfortunately, they often have a hodgepodge of responsibilities, including activities unrelated to innovation, and it’s an uphill battle to innovate in the confines of a school district bureaucracy. Innovation can happen in school districts, but it’s usually a bug rather than a feature of the enterprise.

Most of the innovation that will persist, then, will occur outside of traditional district schools. When the pandemic started, charter schools capitalized on their nimbleness and autonomy to adapt their models quickly. Private schools used their independence to create safe in-person learning environments and saw a swell in enrollment. Community-based organizations repurposed their staff and space to form learning hubs. Pandemic pods and companies to support their formation emerged in a matter of weeks. Microschools popped up to fill the vacuum that districts created with their sluggish response. It shouldn’t be surprising that nonprofits and companies can respond faster to needs than big public institutions; their autonomy and small scale are critical factors.

Teachers Unions

The iconic teacher union boss, Albert Shanker, knew that job protections and school innovation aren’t mutually exclusive. His commentary on the topic shows his principled approach to testing new ideas, scaling only the ones that proved to be effective, and rejecting profiteers. Unfortunately, today’s teachers’ unions often oppose new programs or school models that depart from traditional staffing, evaluation, or compensation models even when they don’t threaten workers’ rights. Similar behavior is on display now in places such as Chicago and San Francisco where unions demand conditions far beyond what public health officials say is necessary to reopen schools safely. In both cases, a willingness to negotiate in goodwill could mean better learning environments for students and potentially better working environment for adults but it seems that advocating for a vocal minority that insists on upholding the status quo has become modus operandi for many unions. It should be no surprise that a labor union prioritizes its membership’s demands over other competing priorities. Still, a stalwart lack of willingness to test new concepts forfeits innovation to charter and private schools and misses out on the collective genius of millions of teachers.

A Lack of Philanthropic Funding for Innovation

When someone has a good idea and wants to test it out, she will need money to develop a plan, purchase supplies, pay stipends, or subsidize time away from her full-time job. 4.0 Schools does this through fellowships and small grants to test ideas. NewSchools Venture Fund, my former employer, provides grants big enough so that innovators can quit their jobs and focus on developing their ideas full time. Unfortunately, philanthropic giving like this is an exception to the rule. Most of the $64 billion given annually to education initiatives sustain existing organizations instead of seeding new ideas. Compared to the $136.5 billion that venture capitalists invested in the U.S. in 2019, investment in education innovation is infinitesimal. 

For ideas that require time-consuming and rigorous academic research and the development of solutions based on research findings, big dollar, and patient R&D funding are necessary. This is common knowledge in many government agencies and the private sector, where an R&D infrastructure consisting of comprehensive policy, finance, cultural, human capital, and market structures to support innovation is solidly in place. The same can’t be said for the education sector. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education spent $238 million on R&D projects, just 0.001% of the federal government’s $132 billion R&D spend for that year. And that’s only publicly funded R&D. U.S. companies spent $378 billion of their own money on R&D in 2018. State education agencies and school districts rarely devote public funds to innovation because of their risk aversion and lack of capacity to conduct innovation activities. Education nonprofits have a difficult time attracting philanthropic funds for unproven ideas. All this amounts to a sector underperforming for millions of students without an engine that fosters promising new ideas. 

The good news is that there are ways policymakers, funders, and education system leaders can create the conditions for pandemic-era innovations to benefit the students that need them the most. I’ll address that in my next post.

You can read more from this series here.

The rules of schooling have been rewritten. Let’s not go back to normal.

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.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed school doors in March, the rules of grammar that underpin our collective beliefs about what “real schools” look like were erased. In a matter of months, school system leaders and teachers were required to break down complex and notoriously unalterable systems into their component parts and rearrange them so kids could keep learning.

An invisible virus accomplished in months what throngs of reformers with billions of dollars in philanthropic support couldn’t. 

Suddenly, waivers from rigid regulations and renegotiated labor contracts freed schools to try new ways of using their time, space, staffing, student groupings, and resources. Devices, broadband internet access, and online learning platforms, which have long been accessory to in-person instruction, became critical means for teaching and learning. Parents who are typically treated as customers were enlisted as co-educators.

Millions of students are now learning in ways that look nothing like school at all.

Yet, nearly a year on, districts are still in crisis response mode. And after months of physical isolation, prolonged stress and anxiety, upended routines, financial uncertainty, and, for some, sickness, death, and grieving, people just want to go back to normal.

For kids who thrive in a traditional setting, getting them back into school buildings may be the best thing. However, for many low-income students returning to “normal” means returning to dilapidated school buildings in segregated neighborhoods staffed with the least experienced teachers and operating on a fraction of the funds other schools enjoy. Lakisha Young, founder of Oakland Reach summed it up this way, “Our Black children have long been failed by in-person learning, so we don’t want a return to the status quo.”  The status quo might also not be the best solution for students who are targets of bullies, suffer from anxiety, or simply prefer remote or hybrid learning environments. For students that were undereducated by their schools during “normal” times it would be a mistake to return to schooling the way it was and ignore the lessons that the pandemic has taught us. 

Instead of going from the status quo to crisis education and back to the status quo again, what if we went from the status quo to crisis education to a more equitable and effective public school system?

Some district leaders envision post-pandemic learning to be fundamentally different from what schools were doing in March. For instance, Karen Quanbeck, superintendent of Clear Creek School District RE-1 in Idaho Springs, Colorado, said at a recent event: “We are navigating this seismic shift in education and my gut is, we’re not going back to pre-pandemic learning, and there’s pros and cons to that.” Quanbeck isn’t alone in her thinking. A recent Rand survey of over 300 district and charter leaders found that “…remote learning, in at least some form, will outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. One in five districts were considering, planning to adopt, or had already adopted a virtual school or fully online option, while about one in ten have adopted or are planning to adopt a blended or hybrid form of instruction.”  Innovation researchers are beginning to wonder whether the lessons that we’ve learned will change schools forever. Teachers are thinking about what pandemic-era classroom practices they want to carry with them into the future. Even parents expect schools to look different in the future. After taking time away from work to support his two kids’ distance learning pod, a colleague returned certain that school would never look the same saying, “parents can’t unsee all of the things they’ve experienced during the pandemic.” 

Of course, not everyone sees this moment as a quantum leap in education innovation. Education historian Larry Cuban, for instance, points to the limited effect of past efforts to create “the classroom of the future” and sees students heading back to school as soon as we hit herd immunity. Others rightly point out to the millions of students who are struggling with online learning or not showing up at all as proof that online learning is a failing experiment. Surely, much of what’s been tried hasn’t worked. There’s value there too. We have as much to learn from the negative effects of the pandemic on schooling as the ingenuity that’s been marshaled to respond to them.

For those of us stubborn optimists who work at the intersection of education and innovation, this moment is an important one. The nation’s 13,000 school districts, 130,000 schools, and 3.7 million teachers have participated in what Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at Transcend Education called the “largest educational innovation experiment in the history of mankind” as they shifted to distance and hybrid learning. More accurately, the pandemic hasn’t prompted one experiment, it’s spun up millions of small and large experiments in a wide range of settings, some of which are succeeding while others are failing. Regardless, the experiments have generated countless lessons that can strengthen, diversify, and augment traditional schooling if — and only if — innovators, system leaders, and policymakers prepare for the rapidly approaching future when students can go back to schools safely. 

Over the next few days, I’ll make the case in a series of blog posts here on Ahead of the Heard that we should be actively looking for pandemic-era education innovations that increase equity and effectiveness. Even though there will be challenging headwinds, there are ways we can tack against them to create conditions where promising new ideas can be tested and shared. 

All students, but most urgently low-income and BIPOC students, and students with special needs, should benefit from the countless lessons generated by the nation’s 130,000 schools over the last 11 months.

You can read more from this series here.