The Innovation Agenda

To deliver an excellent education to every child and to ensure U.S. global competitiveness, President Obama has set the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.  Though ambitious, this goal is attainable through bold reform and innovation spanning the education pipeline from early learning to college.

Defining Innovation

In education, innovations are strategies, products, or approaches that improve significantly upon the status quo and can be taken to scale to address persistent educational challenges.  Such innovations are central to our national education reform efforts, including effective teachers and principals, improved use of data, high standards and high quality assessment, and turnaround of persistently low-performing schools.  Successful innovations improve student achievement, close achievement gaps, decrease dropout rates, increase high school graduation, and increase college enrollment and completion.  Successful innovations also inform the development of additional solutions and help expand the reach of those that are proven effective.

The Challenge

In classrooms across the country, teachers are implementing innovative practices to enhance teaching, raise engagement, and boost student learning; but all too often these practices fail to make their way into classrooms down the hall.  Without systems to validate the effectiveness of and share broadly these practices, the important work of replicating effective educational innovations within and across schools, districts, and states is a difficult task.  Addressing these and other barriers and encouraging innovation in the education sector is a critical role for the federal government.

The Innovation Agenda

To accelerate the development and broad adoption of innovative programs, processes, and strategies required to achieve the President’s goal, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) has outlined three strategic objectives: 1) to deliver and scale effective solutions that address high priority needs; 2) to build the Department’s capacity to accelerate innovation; and 3) to support the development of the infrastructure and context for continuing innovation in the public and private sectors. To further this agenda, the Department strives to:

  • Identify where innovations in education occur, support successful innovations with grants, and help bring them to scale by sharing best practices and encouraging participation in communities of practice;
  • Address unmet needs and gaps by supporting the direct development of innovations, and working to connect research with needs and practice; and
  • Ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to support the future development and implementation of ideas by creating an innovation pipeline, strengthening research and development systems, and encouraging policies that enable innovation.

The Department is committed to providing states and districts with opportunities to innovate by offering incentives to states to implement transformative reforms through programs like Race to the Top, elevating technology as a cross-cutting programmatic priority, and promoting the use of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs to support high academic standards and the development of competitive skills.  Encouraging and rewarding states and districts to innovate is a cornerstone of the Department’s agenda.  The following initiatives further exemplify the Department’s work in this area.

Innovation from the Field

Many of the best innovations begin in classrooms, schools, and communities around the country, with the teachers and principals who lead them.  Identifying and scaling effective innovations is a primary goal of our innovation agenda.  The Investing in Innovation Fund, Promise Neighborhoods, and charter schools initiatives are powerful examples of this strategy.

Investing in Innovation (i3): i3 will identify and fund local innovative practices that have an impact on improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school  graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates. This program introduces a new rigorous, three-tiered evidence framework to direct different levels of funding to programs at three different stages of development, with the highest level of funding going to programs with the strongest evidence. Building an evidence base of what works will help bring the most promising solutions to scale.

Promise Neighborhoods: This place-based strategy addresses the needs of students in distressed communities by combining effective schools with strong systems of support to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and transform communities.  Promise Neighborhoods takes a comprehensive approach to ensuring that children have access to a continuum of supports from cradle-through-college- and career to address their education, health, and social needs.

Charter schools: Charter schools are public schools that are given more autonomy than traditional public schools in exchange for increased accountability.  At their best, they help drive innovation by incubating new approaches and identifying effective strategies that serve to boost student, teacher, principal, and school success.  Quality charter schools expand the educational options available to parents and empower them to make the best choices to meet the learning needs of their children.  The contribution of charter schools will be improved significantly by closing the lowest performers, expanding the best, and leveraging the tools and resources of the best to improve other charter and traditional public schools.

Direct Development of Innovation

Occasionally, innovation from the field will not on its own produce game-changing solutions to our most persistent or difficult challenges. In such situations, the federal government has a history of filling these gaps in the innovation pipeline.  In fields other than education, organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), have been created to address unmet needs and accelerate the emergence of new products in their respective sectors. Currently no similar organization supports such activities in education.  In response, the Department is leading the administration’s efforts to design and launch an organization to serve this critical function in the field of education.

Infrastructure for Continuing Innovation

The Department is committed to ensuring that the systems and processes necessary to create and support a healthy environment for innovation are in place.  Through collaboration and thought leadership, the Department supports the efforts of several other public and private agencies to develop a coherent Research and Development agenda, deploy the systems, capabilities and policies required to implement it and secure the public and private investment to enable impactful innovations to come from those efforts.  Specifically, the Department convenes leaders and stakeholders from the education, research, philanthropic, investment, entrepreneur and other key communities to develop and refine ideas, collaborate on innovations and invest in each other’s efforts.  An early example of a next generation platform is the Department’s new Open Innovation Portal (https:/ which links entrepreneurs, education stakeholders, and funders to collaboratively develop, fund, and scale innovative ideas in the education sector.