Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Climate Change: Innovation

Congratulations to Barack Obama on his sweeping victory. We can expect a change of policy climate with a new administration bringing new players and new policy ideas to the table. The appointment of a new director of the Institute of Education Sciences will provide an early opportunity to set direction for research and development. Reauthorization of NCLB and related legislation — including negotiating the definition and usage of “scientific research” — will be another, although pundit consensus was that this change will take two more years, given the urgency of fixing the economy and resolving the war in Iraq. But already change is in the air with proposals for dramatic shifts in priorities. Here we raise a question about the big new idea that is getting a lot of play: innovation.

Educational innovation being called for includes funding for research and development [R&D (with a capital D for a focus on new ideas)], acquisition of school technology, and funding for dissemination of new charter school models. The Brookings Institution recently published a policy paper Changing the Game: The Federal Role in Supporting 21st Century Educational Innovation by Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham. The paper imagines a new part of the US Department of Education called the Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OEEI) that would be charged with the job of implementing “a game-changing strategy [that] requires the federal government to make new types of investments, form new partnerships with philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, and act in new ways to support the growth of entrepreneurship and innovation within the public education system” (p34). The authors see this as complementary to standards-based reform, which is yielding diminishing returns. “To reach the lofty goals that standards-based reform has set, we need more than just pressure. We need new models of organizing schooling and new tools to support student learning that are dramatically more effective or efficient than what schools doing today” (p35).

As an entrepreneurial education business, we applaud the idea behind the envisioned OEEI. The question for us arises when we think about how OEEI would know whether a game-changing model is “dramatically more effective or efficient.” How will the OEEI decide which entrepreneurs should receive or continue to receive funds? Although the authors call for a “relentless focus on results,” they do not say how results would be measured. The venture capital (VC) model bases success on return on investment. Many VC investments fail but, if a good percentage succeeds, the overall monetary return to the VC is positive. While venture philanthropies often work the same way, the profits go back into supporting more entrepreneurs instead of back to the investors. Scaling up profitably is a sufficient sign of success. Perhaps we can assume that parents, communities, and school systems would not choose to adopt new products if they were ineffective or inefficient. If this were true, then scaling up would be an indirect indication of educational effectiveness. Will positive results for innovations in the marketplace be sufficient, or should there perhaps be a role for research to determine their effectiveness?

The authors suggest a $300 million per year “Grow What Works” fund of which less than 5% would be set aside for “rigorous independent evaluations of the results achieved by the entrepreneurs” (p48). Similarly, their suggestion for a program like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would allow only up to 10%. Budgeting research at this level is unlikely to have much influence over what is likely to be an overwhelming imperative for market success. Moreover, what will be the role of independent evaluations if they fail to show the innovation to be dramatically more effective or efficient? Funding research as a set-aside from a funded program is always an uphill battle because it appears to take money away from the core activity. So let‘s be innovative and call this R&D with the intention of empowering both the R and the D. Rather than offer a token concession to the research community, build ongoing formative research and impact evaluations into the development and scale-up processes themselves. This may more closely resemble the “design-engineering-development” activities that Tony Bryk describes.

Integrating the R with the D will have two benefits. First it will provide information to federal and private funding agencies on the progress toward whatever measurable goal is set for an innovation. Second, it will help the parents, communities, and school systems make informed decisions about whether the innovation will work locally. The important partner here is the school district, which can take an active role in evaluation as well as development. These are the entities that ultimately have to decide whether the innovations are more effective and efficient that what they already do. They are also the ones with all the student, teacher, financial, and other data needed to conduct quasi-experiments or interrupted time series studies. If an agency like OEEI is created, it should insist that school districts become partners in the R&D for innovations they consider introducing. —DN