03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Needed to Make Sure Innovation Is Working?

I think there is danger that the current flurry of activity at the federal level could lead people to (mistakenly) believe that the federal government and states are responsible for education success in America, not parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and (gasp!) local school boards.

I suggest that the federal government clarify its intended relationship to K-12 education. People need to hear: "Hey everyone, we know it is you folks out there who make education successful. Our goal is to support you. You know better than us exactly what will work for your child/classroom/school/community. We're here to help but you're not off the hook!"

In this way, we can counter a trend that I see cropping up in the trenches: a sense of resignation that all of us out here beyond the beltway are just pawns in a grand scheme being run from Washington. I don't think that's what the folks in Washington have in mind; we need to nip this in the bud.

Education system design

Second, I think the federal government needs to use its leverage to remove local system barriers that prevent innovation from taking hold.

I give it an 'A' for this so far this year!

Upping the ante in research & development

The "Kress-Ravitch Principle" makes sense to me. More good research conducted by people with direct experience of the problems. Three fertile areas:

  • Defining effective teaching: I spent a fascinating day at the New Schools Venture Fund Community of Practice last week learning about recent R&D in this area conducted by the New Teacher Project, DC Public Schools, Teach for America and PUC Schools, among others. There is growing R&D activity in this area. The federal government could lead.
  • English language learners: Educators need lots of help here.
  • Assessments: If "what gets measured gets done," then let's get better at measuring what's most important. (Great to see positive movement on this front at the federal level.)

And there are many other areas.

The purposes of education in 21st Century America

Finally, I'd suggest that there is a Big Topic that the secretary and president need to weigh in on.

Chad Wick at KnowledgeWorks makes an interesting point. There is no 'shared vision' for education in America "...until we answer the deeper question about the core purpose of public education and establish a vision that aligns our efforts, innovation will never be 'organized, prioritized, or leveraged for maximum impact.'"

Well, I think that this is a good thing to a certain extent. If we're going to invest "locals" with a lot of control, then we can expect them to make different choices about what they want. That's good.

But I think we have a bit of a crisis of confidence at the national level that is being brought on by economic tough times and global shifts in the balance of power. Thomas Friedman is crying out that the World is Flat. China is standing up. Even college-educated kids are having a tough time getting jobs these days.

Given that the world is changing, exactly what kind of education do we need our children to get? To what level do they need to demonstrate competence on a multiple choice test? At what point should parents/teachers/principals/school boards stop worrying primarily about driving those scores higher and start worrying about how to develop children's minds and character in ways that will manifest results in other ways?

In other words, given that our kids are headed into a different world, how do we prepare them for it? And how do we know if we're succeeding?

In my experience, the discussions on this topic beyond the beltway often get reduced to "more testing in English and math" vs. "a more expansive view of education." I think that is a false choice and we need leaders in all sectors, including the federal government, who can help parents answer this question in more sophisticated and compelling ways.