Here’s How Washington, D.C. Can Drive Innovation In Education Throughout the Country—With No Strings Attached

There’s a lot of banter about the substance and character of the 105th Congress. Perhaps because it’s led by one party, and that party is typically on the outs with most establishment forces, especially when it comes to education.

But Congress has a unique quality, quite apart from its partisan divide, which seems to have been overlooked by most, if not all, pundits and casual observers — this may be the first Congress whose members have lived an entire generation with technology at the center of their lives. And for education innovators, that means it may be the first Congress to truly understand the importance of digital technologies in the delivery and structure of education.

It used to be that any conversation on Capitol Hill about education reform was limited to what the feds could or could not do to support programs and services that were purported to help the traditional factory-style model school and its various stakeholders. It was always about money, and for most education lobbies, it still is.

Indeed, the ongoing battle to enact the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (and now to see that its programs are well-funded) remains centered on what resources the feds can provide and ensuring that locals have unfettered control over it. That’s a noble goal, and indeed was the central theme of the policy drive to enact this new federal law. And while it indeed rights many wrongs that were perpetrated by a combination of misimplementation of No Child Left Behind as well as a heavy federal hand, it’s still largely a law that respects the status quo.

But what if there were a solution to educational failure that not only was the antithesis of the status quo, but also cost no additional funds and could be led by Washington?

Sitting recently in the office of Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), I learned just how this could be possible. As his team drew the district boundaries for me — the largest in the state of Texas, spread out between suburban and rural districts — they shared how some of his leading school superintendents were engaged with technology innovations, including testing the use of drones and connecting with NASA scientists.

“How do we help more school districts do that?” his chief asked me. There are two answers: one traditional, one not so traditional. First, ESSA does indeed allow more flexibility in how districts operate, but to be truly able to use funds to develop dynamic learning environments, the Education Department must allow them to escape federal spending silos, and remove any restrictions on combining germane or related programs.

As the Center for Education Reform argued in our recommendations for President Trump, “The administration should conduct a thorough review of all regulatory limitations imposed on spending in education regulations, as well as across other departments from which schools and school districts benefit. Education funding and regulation is not limited to the Education Department.”

At a recent event at Yale, I happened to talk with two instructional leaders from the district of New Haven. They go from school to school providing support and guidance. I asked about their biggest challenge, and it was a textbook case of government morass: Every program has reports that must be done, and people spend so much time accounting for the program in reports that they don’t operate the programs as well. It’s costly and ineffective.

“What if you could work with schools to combine program funds and do one report, not dozens,” I asked. “Well, that would be heaven,” I heard back.

Part of why districts do what they do is the result of a long-standing culture. But part of it is also directives and guidance from Washington and the states, reinforcing that status quo and valuing compliance over innovation.

When school leaders have flexibility from such arcane ideas using the amount of time and days a student is in a seat as a proxy for funding and measurement, they can help transform the learning process. Just look how personalized learning efforts are going on in communities across the country. Dozens of breakthrough school models in every education sector are flipping classrooms, applying project-based learning to the old classroom, creating digital learning drive classrooms and the like.

The folks in Washington get this today. Many are digital natives, having been born in an age of technology-driven innovations. Even if they aren’t tech geeks, they recognize that technology and its advantages are all around them, and they’re aware of the innovations happening in education across the country.

A generation ago, one only saw sporadic news about the dynamic changes happening in charter schools. Or the wave of digital learning allowing students to learn 24-7. Or online higher education and career boot camps and apprenticeships that can be done anywhere.

And these are lifelong learners. With learning close at hand, independently of place and space, this is a generation of people who are more likely to have an innovation mindset — one that can be put to good use for the nation’s schools.

So what’s that magic, no-cost bullet Washington can do to accelerate this?

Make innovation a mandate from Washington, with no strings.

First, require Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to do a forensic audit of how regulatory and nonregulatory guidance misdirects spending. The goal: to authorize new guidance to ensure that local leaders can indeed combine and authorize spending on new innovations.

Second, engage congressional committees like the one on education and the workforce, or the Subcommittee on Information Technology (which Hurd chairs), to hold a series of hearings. The goal: to uncover what local education leaders think most needs to be done in Washington to enable innovations. Congress will get an earful, for sure.

Third, create a national rural-education initiative that directs infrastructure dollars to support any public-private partnerships that drives the creation of new schools, connected by new roads and new bandwidths that can reach more learners at all levels closer to their homes and communities. Making personalized education part of the promised federal infrastructure plan can not only accelerate and change learning for the better, but it could also spur economic growth.

Transforming these no-cost or planned-cost efforts from business-as-usual to unusually innovative federal incentives for educational change would be path-breaking, to say the least. And long overdue.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and chief executive of the Center for Education Reform. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneAllen, where she often tweets about technological innovation.