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:

  • Invest in rigorous education R&D at the federal level (like the idea of ARPA-ED), with a emphasis on the “D” for development of new ideas and models instead of hard-to-implement academic research.
  • Incentivize states to create education R&D funds and provide support for SEAs to hire or train senior staff to execute high-quality R&D.
  • Expand the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund and Education Innovation and Research (EIR) competition.
  • Invest in innovation-specific education organizations like incubators, accelerators, and R&D organizations.
  • Instruct the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, and others to collect and report education sector-related data (read one example here).
  • Make federal education data more accessible and provide funds for states to do the same. More importantly (but less politically feasible) is to require states to adhere to data quality standards that make collection, reporting, and comparability easier.
  • Incentivize states to reduce barriers to entry for new schools and education organizations and promote healthy competition through smart regulation.
  • Invest in charter authorizer improvement and oversight.

Finding political middle ground is getting more difficult everyday for DeVos. She may eventually want to look for areas of K-12 education that have bipartisan support, fit the contours of Trump’s policy agenda, and which use an appropriate role for the federal government even a downsized one. Innovation is one of those areas.

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