Looking Back and Ahead: The View from OII’s Assistant Deputy Secretary

This past calendar year, a number of new programs and initiatives were launched and many of OII’s existing programs were refined to align with the Department of Education’s commitment to being an “engine of innovation” for the U.S. public education system. Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton discusses the highlights of the past year and provides his thoughts on several important issues facing education in this February interview with The Education Innovator.

Jim Shelton became assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) in March 2009.  This past calendar year, a number of new programs and initiatives were launched and many of OII’s existing programs were refined to align with the Department of Education’s commitment to being an “engine of innovation” for the U.S. public education system.  In this interview, Jim Shelton discusses the highlights of this past year and provides his thoughts on several important issues facing education innovation in the weeks and months ahead.

Innovator 2010 was a transformative year for OII.  What, from your perspective, were the highlights of the year and the implications for the field?

Shelton:  There were a number of highlights in 2010 that have the potential to be of considerable influence to the field.

Unleashed local innovation – Two new programs unleashed unprecedented amounts of local energy and innovation.  First, the Investing in Innovation Fund, more widely known as i3, received 1,698 applications from local education agencies (LEAs) and nonprofits proposing ideas and programs that could dramatically change outcomes for our country’s children.  i3 provided just under $650 million in support of the highest-rated 49 applicants that represent 24 states and are pursuing innovations in areas ranging from STEM to the arts, and are focused on a range of high-need students including those in rural communities, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and foster children.

Second, more than 300 communities came together to submit innovative, cradle-through-college-and-career integrated service models to the Promise Neighborhoods Program, launching hundreds of those communities into unprecedented planning processes – some with, but most without, federal funding.  Meanwhile, existing programs, including Full-Service Community SchoolsMagnet SchoolsReady to Learn Television, and others attracted record applications including many cutting-edge approaches to persistent challenges.

Learning powered by technology – OII and the Office of Educational Technology produced the National Education Technology Plan to inform the Department’s and the country’s efforts to improve cradle-through-career learning by leveraging technology [see the Dec. 7th Innovator].  The plan’s five sections on Learning, Assessment, Teaching, Infrastructure, and Productivity provide a compelling frame for capturing one of the best opportunities our country has to leapfrog over other high-performing and rapidly improving countries.

Increased emphasis on data use and evidence – In existing and new programs, we were able to increase the focus on the use of feedback loops and evidence, especially those tied to student growth and achievement.  i3, which was specifically designed to identify and fund local innovative practices, introduced a simple but powerful concept: a little money for a little evidence; a lot of money for a lot of evidence.  In addition, winning Teacher Quality Partnership Grants committed to using data on student progress to inform improvement of their proposed professional development programs.

Increased openness – Whether making unprecedented amounts of data available by developing Data.Ed.Govto provide significantly greater transparency into applicants and the application process, or prioritizing open educational resources and requiring data sharing in competitions, we have changed the way we do business,increasing access and maximizing accountability and return on investment for the public.

Innovator:  The private sector is now playing a heightened and collaborative role in leveraging funds to support innovative programs and initiatives.  What do you think helped to contribute to this increased degree of private-sector participation?

Shelton:  Over the last few decades, the private sector has dedicated significant resources in response to a call to modernize and improve U.S. public education.  The business and private sectors have long recognized that our education system does not produce enough graduates who are work-ready and who can fill many of the highest-growth jobs.  In contrast to their experiences with other countries’ appetite for expertise, support, and partnership, the business and private sectors have struggled to have meaningful engagement with and impact on the U.S. education system.  Along with the Obama Administration’s and Congress’ unprecedented investment in improving the education system, the bold leadership of President Obama and Secretary Duncan, and ambitious efforts of many states and districts, the private sector is seizing the opportunity to help lead change and leverage its investments.

It also seems that the clear crisis it always takes to spur action is finally coming into focus.  Arne says it all the time, “the urgency for reform has never been greater.”  The growing, widespread acknowledgement that our education system is truly in crisis is bringing together the will and resources of the government with the will and resources of private philanthropies in the form of complementary decisions and actions.  In fact, following our first i3 Project Directors’ Meeting  this past month, the Aspen Institute, in collaboration with the Department, convened the Education Innovation Forum to capitalize on the tremendous momentum created by the response to the i3 Fund.  It brought together national education leaders, entrepreneurs, and problem solvers with those from private funding sources looking to support implementable solutions to our most pressing challenges in education.

Innovator:  Going forward, how will OII support districts, states, and other key education stakeholders such as community-based organizations in 2011?

Shelton:  OII will continue to administer a number of grant programs and provide technical assistance to its grantees.  We will also continue to elevate innovations from the field, strive to share best practices and useful resources, encourage partnerships and collaboration, and connect the work of our grantees with the Department’s overall innovation agenda.

Innovator:  In education, the innovation agenda promotes taking effective practices, approaches, and strategies to scale.  What are some of the key challenges for achieving scale and can ED help overcome them?

Shelton:  The challenges can be simplified to three things:  knowledge-sharing, acceptance, and investment.  (1) Innovation is happening everywhere, but if these ideas, practices, and approaches aren’t being shared in a way that supports adaptation and implementation, scale cannot be achieved.  The truth is that the field just doesn’t have a system to capture and disseminate best practices in an efficient and effective manner.  (2) Even if we did, innovations aren’t always easily accepted and adopted; many get caught up in slow bureaucracies or are rejected outright without being given a chance.  (3) Finally, many innovations are unable to secure the funds necessary for implementation, refinement, and growth.  Add to these insufficient focus on designing solutions that are easy for teachers to use and fit into the constraints of their environments, and you have a perfect storm.

ED can play a major role in helping to overcome these and other challenges by pursuing a three-pronged innovation agenda that seeks to:

  • deliver and scale effective solutions that address high priority needs;
  • build the Department’s capacity to use its programs and policies to accelerate innovation; and
  • support the development of the infrastructure and context for continuing innovation in the public and private sectors.

Innovator:  What are the prospects for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) in 2011, and what could it mean for innovation?

Shelton:  My hope and expectation is that reauthorization will be a priority for Congress as it is for the Secretary and the President, and that the new ESEA will greatly support innovation in the states — not only the development and implementation of new approaches and practices, but supporting the structures and systems that enable the development and dissemination of those things found most effective.

Innovator:  Secretary Duncan has challenged everyone to acknowledge and embrace “the new normal,” essentially “doing more with less.”  What are the greatest obstacles for districts and states in transitioning to a framework of better, faster, cheaper?

Shelton:  First and foremost, strong leadership is the most critical element.  Doing more with less requires leaders to both understand what is important and what works and be willing on act on it.  The recent McKinsey report on how the world’s best education systems keep getting better affirms the critical need for leadership.  This highlights two additional challenges: (1) Most budgeting and procurement processes are not based on understanding and doing more of what works; and (2) state and district agencies often lack the knowledge or skills to operate that way.

Innovator:  What can the federal government uniquely do to help the U.S. education enterprise address these obstacles and succeed in this challenging era?

Shelton:  One of the things we can do as the federal government is to create the context and the infrastructure for great people to do great work.  The moon shot, the invention of the Internet, and the mapping of the human genome were each driven by a federal commitment to American leadership in those areas.  Not one of these game-changing accomplishments would have happened, especially in the same timeframe, without federal involvement.  We can provide the same leadership in education.  This means not only finding and funding some of the best work in the country, but also encouraging investments in public and private research and development, disseminating important findings and effective practices, and convening “thinkers and doers” to help frame the agenda and move the work forward.

Like cities and states, the federal government is also grappling with how we, as an agency and as a country, “do more with less.”  Improving Cost Effectiveness 101 begins with eliminating waste.  By identifying and elevating effective practices, we can help students, teachers, schools, districts, and states invest in what works and, perhaps more importantly, stop doing what doesn’t work.  We can enable and provide incentives for new innovations that increase the productivity and outright effectiveness of both students and teachers.  The Open Innovation PortalData.Ed.Gov, and the new OII website are three platforms that can and should serve as resources to the public in support of this effort.

Innovator:  With regard to states and districts, what steps can they take to build their capacities to identify and develop new strategies for doing more with less?  And, equally as important, how can they achieve high expectations for all students being college and career ready without taking drastic and short-sighted measures such as eliminating teachers, foregoing a well-rounded education, or reducing opportunities for school choice?

Shelton:  As Arne says, “The first step is to see this challenge as an opportunity.”  Although tough decisions will have to be made, states and districts and individual schools have many opportunities to become more creatively efficient and improve their outcomes.  Early college high schools and competency-based progression give students the opportunity to engage in rigorous work, accelerate their progress into postsecondary studies, and save both students and systems time and money.  The thoughtful use of technology has been shown to increase achievement, engagement, and completion while saving time and money.  The use of digital resources in place of books can allow for more timely and relevant resources at lower costs.  Strategic staffing, scheduling, and resource allocation also have been shown to increase achievement, often while lowering costs.  The integration of social services and family and community supports into schools has been shown to increase achievement and completion while better leveraging the resources that are already being spent.  The list of opportunities goes on and on.

States and districts that are struggling with adapting can reach out to each other and to outside experts to support their efforts to change and to build their capacity to become systemically engaged in continuous improvement focused on doing more with less.  The Department and numerous NGOs are working to provide expertise, tools, and resources to support these efforts; but the best resources will be the best ideas of fellow states and districts.