Start-ups are one of the most exciting parts of today’s economy. Local leaders across the country are racing to build economies that foster entrepreneurship, experimentation and innovation. Yet in public education, we routinely struggle to lean into educators’ innovative instincts. What if we celebrated great schools the same way that we celebrate great start-ups? What if we thought of educators in the same way that we look up to leading innovators? To galvanize education leaders, the Department of Education is partnering with Medium to launch a series of conversations centered on innovation and education. We will hear from educators, thought leaders from education and technology, and many other innovators who are affecting change across our country.
They may not be household names like Elon Musk or Sheryl Sandberg, but throughout the country, public education innovators are inspiring fellow educators and improving education for America’s students. There are innovators like Scott Given at UP Education Network, who is launching new public schools that are quadrupling students’ proficiency levels; or Mora Segalat Achievement Network, who spends her days helping educators understand and employ high-quality standards and practices that address the unique needs of their students. These folks — and the countless other educators who stretch the limits, and make us rethink what’s possible in student achievement — are leading efforts to transform students’ lives. And yet the fanfare given to innovative educators is nowhere close to the attention that start-ups receive. As a nation, we expend tremendous time, capital and talent into finding the next great business idea, but too often we overlook the important innovations happening in our own schools, in our own communities. But what if we prized the ingenuity and creativity of our teachers and schools the same way we do for entrepreneurs and start-ups?
First, we would all readily know the names of incredible educators leading dramatic gains in students’ achievement. Cities and communities would compete to attract and retain great educators. And we would talk about the schools where these educators work like we talk about sports teams. We would say to each other, “Did you see that students at IDEA schools have had 100 percent college acceptance for nine straight years? How do they do that?” We would recognize that for every problem we face in education there is someone in America — right now — who is actually solving it. We need to lift these people up, celebrate their success and learn what they are doing to enable such transformation.
Second, there would be fierce competition to invest plentiful resources in educators and schools. Funders, cities, and companies would provide facilities, training, and resources for educators to attempt new and innovative methods. When these new methods demonstrate success, public and private funders alike would elbow their way to the front of the pack to make large investments to scale across schools and communities. And if a new model did not produce better outcomes, we would push ourselves to understand why and apply these lessons to a new iteration. Our own experience indicates that educators are hungry for financial support that enables innovation — and that they’re willing to take an honest look in the mirror to understand their impact: In 2010, the Department launched the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program; over the last five grant cycles, we received over 4,000 applications for just 143 grants. Each of these organizations commits to rigorously measuring its results so that it can learn from the experience — and share its learnings with others. While the demand is clear, there are currently insufficient Federal and private-sector resources that support education innovation.
Finally, we would dedicate ourselves to creating and sustaining large-scale innovation that fundamentally and dramatically improves educational outcomes for our most disadvantaged students. In the entrepreneurial ecosystem, when the status quo is failing, someone creates a new model. Sharing economy startups, for example, are helping small businesses and individuals access office space, lodging, and transportation; and crowdfunding start-ups are helping raise money for entrepreneurs who may not access conventional sources of funds. Too often in education, we rely on models that are failing students, especially our most vulnerable. We need to change this by investing in models that are proven to work for our most disadvantaged students. One example is Mi Escuelita Therapeutic Preschoolin Chula Vista, California. The Mi Escuelita program is helping children who have experienced family violence enter kindergarten at equal or sometimes higher levels of school readiness than their non-trauma-exposed peers.
Although we are proud and excited to launch a discussion on innovation in education through our partnership with Medium, these success stories can’t just live online. We need your voice and your action on the ground. There are pockets — such as Tennessee’s iZone schools and 4.0 Schools — where individuals and communities are taking innovation seriously, both in thought and in resources. But there is potential everywhere. Please join the conversation by using the tag “i3” to share your thoughts and stories about innovation in education. We all must take a hard look at our own communities and demand that all our educators have the financial and political support necessary to create transformational improvements in student achievement.
*Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.