From Compliance to Innovation

  • twitter
  • Facebook
  • google+

Good morning. It's a pleasure to speak to America's Choice Superintendent's Symposium. The National Center on Education and the Economy, which helped father America's Choice, has been at the forefront of efforts to develop school improvement models that align rigorous standards and assessments.

I'm pleased to learn about the Rigor and Readiness program that you are now developing with the ACT, one of our national leaders in developing comprehensive tests to assess college readiness. Your program adds to the movement now sweeping the country to develop college and career-ready standards and assessments for all American students.

I see many of my heroes, the top superintendents from around the country gathered here today–and we have also invited many innovative, forward-thinkers from the non-profit and business world.

Thank to all of you for your hard work because our students need it–and so does America.

On Tuesday we released a study comparing kids in the U.S. to students around the world. Some of the results are disturbing. Compared to their peers in other countries, our students are stagnating. Students have not made gains in science or reading.

In fact, in science, our eighth graders' scores now lag behind their peers in eight countries that also participated in the original international assessment. In math, although scores have improved somewhat since 1995, our 15 year-olds' scores now lag behind those of 31 countries. Four countries—Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland—outperform U.S. students on all subjects.

This news is troubling because, as all of you know, our children will be competing with kids from around the world for the jobs of the future. And it is no secret that our only path to long-term economic security and higher productivity is to dramatically improve both the depth and breadth of education in this country.

Today, 30 percent of our children, or about 1.2 million students a year fail to complete high school on time. Only two-thirds of those who do graduate go on to any form of college. And far too many students who matriculate fail to earn a degree.

To prepare students for the challenges of the global economy, President Obama wants the United States to regain the position it held not long ago as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And he wants every American to have a least one year of college, trade, or technical training.

The president's goals are ambitious—but so is the challenge. The hard truth is that we cannot create a seamless cradle-to-career pipeline of college-ready students by continuing to do what we are doing now if we only do it just a little bit better.

To meet the President's goals–to reach the finish line–we need transformational change. The islands of excellence that now exist in school districts have to become the norm. The promising solutions that you have all created need to be brought to scale. And our existing market-based and political barriers to far-reaching reform have to recede.

In a word, America's schools need innovation. Educational innovation should not be confused with just generating more great ideas or unique inventions. Instead we need new solutions that improve outcomes–and that can, and will, be used to serve hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students.

Smart innovation and entrepreneurship are not the only way to dramatically accelerate achievement and attainment. But without them, we will surely fall short of our goals–and do a disservice to our children. As the president said in his inaugural address, "the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Traditionally, the K-12 system has not been considered to be a bastion of innovation and entrepreneurship. We have all seen the presentations showing that the early 20th century classroom looks eerily similar to many classrooms today.

The analogy may be exaggerated. But it is true that for much of the last century we have not cultivated a culture of innovation–or built the district-level systems needed to sustain a cycle of continuous improvement.

Starting a century ago, big, comprehensive high schools began to replace the simple schoolhouses of earlier eras. Schools adopted the factory model that was popular to produce graduates that mirrored the needs of the workforce at that time. A privileged few went to college, but most did not.

Teachers and students were then thought of as interchangeable widgets. Teachers were rewarded based on credentials and experience, not on their performance in the classroom. Instruction was not tailored to the individual needs of students but to providing education for the masses and new immigrants.

It is easy to forget today, but up through our parent's generation, public schools often seemed like immortal institutions of brick and mortar. There were no charter schools, turnaround schools, or virtual schools–and magnet schools and early college high schools were extremely rare. Occasionally, a high school would close due to under-enrollment. But it was rare that a high school would be transformed by being broken up into smaller schools or themed academies.

Comprehensive high schools were thought of as eternal edifices that defined neighborhoods for decades–and often educated both parents and their children. The standards and accountability movement didn't yet exist. Schools were judged more by inputs than by outcomes.

Now to be sure, the lack of innovation in educational options for students didn't preclude schools from experimenting with a variety of reforms. Schools and districts tried a slew of curricular reforms over the years but most of them had little impact or staying power.

Some curricular reforms, like the introduction of phonics and AP exams, caught on and changed education for the better. But more than a few reforms failed. In fact, part of the problem with K-12 innovation has been that it often was faddish, lurching from one pedagogical favorite to the next–without ever really rigorously assessing what works and what doesn't work.

In the last two decades, those immortal institutions of the past have become more open to innovation and entrepreneurship. In 1996, the nation had about 250 charter schools—today, more than a million students attend over 4,000 charter schools.

The best charters today are models of innovation–and the worst charters should be closed. But authorizers have waited too long to intervene in low performers. And districts have not done enough to understand and apply more broadly the lessons of what works from the top performers.

In half-a-dozen cities today, charter schools now account for more than 20 percent of all students. Good charter schools increase the number of quality educational options available to parents who previously had no choice where to send their children.

My challenge to those cities is to take the next step and perfect this model of innovation—close those charter schools that are failing, and systematically replicate and learn from those that are succeeding.

Change and entrepreneurship abound elsewhere in the K-12 system but it is still constrained by gaps in our knowledge of effective practices. In the No Child Left Behind era, we're now starting to evaluate schools primarily on the basis of student outcomes as opposed to inputs—and schools are tracking the performance of student subgroups for the first time.

Online courses and online supplementation of course material are catching on fast. But we have made only limited investments in understanding which online instruction is most effective.

Smaller, themed schools have sprung up throughout districts. But we have yet to distinguish between approaches that really boost achievement and those that do not.

Personalized accommodations for children with disabilities are universal–in a system that once virtually ignored learning and behavioral disabilities. And yet we are just now starting to advance the practices with the greatest evidence of serving these students well.

We are on the cusp of a new era of innovation and entrepreneurship in education that was almost unimaginable a decade ago.

But we still have a long way to go. And the responsibility for speeding that transformation lies not just in districts but at the doors of the U.S. Department of Education.

I know what some of you are thinking. I was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for seven years. And I would be the first to admit that I did not always welcome the phone calls from the U.S. Department of Education.

That was because the department has historically been an agency that monitored compliance with federal regulations.

The department did not open its Office of Innovation and Improvement until 2002, more than two decades after its founding. Even then, the department's programs to promote innovation have been modest at best.

I want to fundamentally change that historical relationship; I want the department to become an engine of innovation, not a compliance machine. I want the department to provide powerful incentives to states, districts, and non-profits to innovate–but at the same time leave most of the creative thinking and entrepreneurship for achieving our common goals in local hands. The best ideas will always come from local educators, not from here in Washington.

Let me give you a preview of some of our thinking about innovation–and how I think we can best stimulate innovation in K-12 education.

I have said recently that we are at a unique moment in the history of education reform. We have what I call "the Perfect Storm for Reform." And that starts with, for the first time, truly having the resources to spur innovation.

As many of you are aware, our recently announced $4.35 billion dollar Race to the Top fund dwarfs the combined sum of discretionary reform funding available to all of my predecessors as education secretary.

In addition, we have $650 million dollars in the Recovery Act to fund the Investing in Innovation program–which we are going to call i3.

This fall, we will publish in the federal register the Notice of Proposed Priorities for the i3 fund. There will be a comment period, followed by an application, and then we plan to make awards in early 2010.

We are very excited about i3. We think it will play an important role in realizing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we now have, which I've described as education reform's moon shot. And we think i3 will help build a framework to support innovation for years to come.

In designing the i3 program, we sought to avoid some of the shortcomings of previous initiatives and instead create robust incentives to expand what works, invest in promising practices, and boldly innovate.

First, we're looking for programs that will be outcome-driven, not input-driven. We're looking for ways to boost student achievement, matriculation, and graduation rates– and we expect successful applicants will be able to demonstrate some success in closing achievement gaps, moving students toward proficiency, increasing graduation rates, and retaining high-quality teachers and principals.

Second, we'll be looking for programs that can successfully be taken to scale and aren't just boutique reforms. And finally we're seeking to fund sustainable innovation, not one-time flash in the pans. Recognizing the fact that these are challenging times, we still expect that grant recipients will provide some public or private dollars to ensure that programs are sustainable.

While the Race to the Top program targets states and districts, i3 grants will be awarded to districts and non-profits, including colleges and universities, turnaround specialists, charter schools, companies, and other stakeholders.

Our basic operating premise is that grants for proven programs should be larger than those for promising but largely untested programs. Grants will fall into three categories:

  • First, Pure Innovation grants of up to about $5 million dollars for promising ideas that should be tried.
  • Second, Strategic Investment grants of up to roughly $30 million for programs that need to build a research base or organizational capacity to succeed at a larger scale.
  • And finally, Grow What Works grants that will go as high as $50 million for proven programs that are ready to grow and expand.

In a few minutes, Jim Shelton—who runs our Office of Innovation and is heading up this effort—will answer some questions about i3. But first I want to talk a little more about the areas where we want to provide incentives to districts and non-profits to create and scale solutions to some of our most important challenges.

For starters, we will be looking—though not exclusively—for proposals that advance the four reforms central to the other Recovery Act programs. They are:

  • College and career-ready standards
  • Data systems that allow us to not only track student progress but to support improved instruction
  • Teacher and principal quality
  • And turnaround schools

We are thrilled that 47 states and three territories are voluntarily working together to establish college-ready standards in language arts and math.

For education entrepreneurs, the common standards movement is a huge leap forward because it opens up opportunities to innovate that were effectively closed off before. It is almost impossible to implement imaginative curriculum and assessments at scale when you have 50 different goalposts to march toward, all at once.

Many districts—including some of yours—are using data everyday to drive instruction and supplement teacher evaluation.

But we still have a great need for better models, to think differently about how to recruit, train, and support teachers—and to figure out what it will take to get talented teachers and principals to the schools where they are needed most. That is hugely important to me.

It has also been very difficult to design tools and resources to truly support teachers and school leaders without being able to assess which teachers have the greatest impact on student learning. That's a bit like trying to treat a patient without completing a physical.

In Chicago, we managed to raise the number of applications for every teacher opening from two to 10. Many of you have similar success stories.

But we still need to learn more from some of the pioneers in expanding teacher recruitment, like Teach for America and the new Teaching Fellows programs that have been established in a number of large urban districts.

Finally, we have roughly 5,000 schools in the country that have been chronically underperforming for years, and unfortunately, sometimes for decades. They include some 2,000 high schools that produce about half of the dropouts in the country, and 75 percent of our dropouts among African-American and Latino students. That is absolutely unacceptable.

We need to radically revise the current incremental approach to these dropout factories.

Districts, non-profits, and unions should have the courage to change in the face of endemic failure—including replacing staff and leadership, rewriting curriculum, lengthening the school day, and transforming the school culture.

Here, too, we have examples to draw on, from Mastery Charters, Green Dot, to the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago. Green Dot and AUSL are engineering successful turnarounds of failing schools with union teachers.

Still, we need new approaches to an assortment of longstanding challenges: Accelerating adolescents who are years behind; helping ELL students learn the language and the content; and assisting students with disabilities complete college-ready work.

So, in addition to supporting innovation in the four core reforms embedded in the Recovery Act, i3 will also bolster other aspects of the President's agenda to improve early learning and college readiness and better serve students in rural districts.

We will be encouraging districts and non-profits to expand and make better use of, both the school day and school year, and will will support promising interventions with at-risk students. Innovative college readiness programs, which prepare students to enter college without the need for remediation, are priorities as well. We have to ultimately get colleges out of the remedial business.

Now I know that innovation doesn't come easily. If it did, I wouldn't be here today asking you to help create a culture of breakthrough innovation in our schools. Successful innovations are often disruptive. We not only understand that, we welcome it.

We know that online content and courses often meet with skepticism and resistance—despite the fact that they make it possible for isolated students and hard-to-staff schools to have access to Advanced Placement courses, foreign languages, and networks of mentors. In Chicago we had a battle to establish a virtual charter school.

Yet I also know that innovation and inspiration often come from unexpected places.

I like to talk about the "Barack Effect"—the idea that the president has made it cool again to be smart and excel in school. But it wasn't that long ago that teaching was not considered a prestigious occupation among students at elite universities.

Two decades ago, a determined senior at Princeton University, Wendy Kopp, set out to change that perception. She wrote her undergraduate thesis about the need to create a teacher corps of committed students, modeled after the Peace Corps.

By her own description, Wendy Kopp was "one of the most naïve college seniors in the history of Princeton University."

But she had both a dream and grit, and following graduation returned each night to her sleeping bag in a New York walk-up, after making the rounds, trying to raise two million dollars for her teacher corps. When she told the personnel director of the Los Angeles Unified School District that she planned to recruit Stanford students, he laughed out loud at the idea that Stanford graduates would teach in Los Angeles.

I think you know the rest of the story.

Two decades later, Teach for America is one of the biggest employers of Stanford graduates. At Ivy League universities, one out of every nine seniors now applies to Teach for America.

Of course Teach for America hasn't solved the problem of how we recruit the toughest, most compassionate, most committed undergrads to become teachers and then stay in education for the long haul. But a naïve college student started a movement that has made teaching cool, encouraged more people to think about alternative routes to becoming a teacher, and helped engage a generation of twenty-somethings in the work of school reform.

It is a lot tougher today than in the past to think of teachers as interchangeable widgets.

Yet let me remind you that for a quarter century after the 1966 Coleman report, school leaders and superintendents often heard that what happened in schools really didn't matter that much in determining student achievement—what really counted was a student's socioeconomic background.

Today, we know the truth is more complicated—and thankfully, much more hopeful. We know that an effective teacher is the single biggest factor in determining student progress—not race, not class, not socioeconomic status.

A topnotch teacher can advance learning a year-and-a-half in a year's time, while students will lose ground compared to their peers with a weak teacher–who may only advance his students a half-year in the course of the year. Three good teachers in a row–versus three bad ones–will make or break a child's educational career.

A whole set of tools to empower teachers and improve instruction are available today that didn't exist just five or ten years ago. Teachers, for example, now use regular formative assessments to differentiate instruction and drive continuous improvement in the classroom. Real-time data and constant evaluation of student progress is taking even our best teacher's craft to an entirely new level.

So let me tell you one last, unlikely story about innovation, about the origin of charter schools.

In 1988, after visiting a school in Cologne, Germany, Al Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, proposed that the U.S. should enable "any school or any group of teachers . . . to develop a proposal for how they could better educate youngsters and then give them a 'charter' to implement that proposal" for a period of five to ten years. After that time, Shanker proposed, "the school could be evaluated to see the extent to which it met its goals, and the charter could be extended or revoked." Empower teachers, enable them to innovate, hold them accountable for results—these are powerful ideas.

The following year, a citizens group in Minnesota and several educators picked up on Al Shanker's proposal–and in 1991, Minnesota enacted the nation's first charter school law.

I tell these stories because I want to remind everyone in the room that breakthrough innovations sometimes comes in unanticipated packages–and they don't come from the federal government.

Within the very broad parameters of the i3 program, we want to provide powerful incentives to districts and non-profits to develop a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

But we are looking to you–the districts and non-profits–to unleash your creativity and build the next generation of education reform.

With your help, your courage, and your commitment, we can transform not just our department but many districts from compliance monitors to engines of innovation.

This is a historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—and I have never been more hopeful about the difference we can make in the lives of our children.

Thank you. And now I'd like to turn the discussion over to Jim Shelton, who will tell you more about our i3 program.