Federal Government Needs to be Innovative in Education

Sara Mead and Andrew J. Rotherham, Changing the Game: The Federal Role in Supporting 21st Century Educational Innovation, Brookings Institute, October 2008.

This briefing, published by the Brookings Institute, concludes that the federal government needs to step up and contribute innovative solutions in order to fix many problems in education today. While some organizations, such as KIPP, Teach for America, College Summit, and New Schools Venture Fund have good ideas and plans for implementation, the restrictions placed by federal laws, difficulties in raising capital, and a limited supply of skilled and experienced human capital make their tasks nearly impossible. Traditional conceptions of what schools are and how they are supposed to function also limits the ability of entrepreneurs to try truly radical ideas.

According to this report, the federal government’s education reform policy has failed on four levels: NCLB was not fully funded, there is an increased amount of money spent on research but little new money for development, political figures are extremely risk averse and reluctant to invest in research and development projects, and the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) is seen as ineffective because it is overstretched in its mission. This report suggests the creation of an Office of Educational Entrepreneurship (OEEI), whichwould have the mission of creating a “culture of innovation and entrepreneurship” in public education. It would promote the work of educational entrepreneurs, philanthropists and innovators.

The report visualizes the work of this department to grow networks of established charter schools, such as KIPP or Achievement First, to build tools to boost student achievement, and invest in the development of “potentially high-payoff educational innovations” which would focus on a small number of the most difficult challenges in American education. One problem is that the report states that if the federal government had the power to help KIPP and others grow, states will allow it. The fact is, individual state charter laws are preventing growth of high-quality charter schools due to caps or single authorizers, and the federal government can do nothing to change these barriers. In regards to selecting winners versus losers in rewarding money to certain networks or organizations, that would be a very difficult thing for the federal government to do without tremendous backlash from “the losers”. One only has to look at the Reading First program’s failures to see how politics and the media can influence the process.

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