12/07/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

After We Avert That Cliff, Let's Create a Nation of Innovators: A Plea for Secretary Duncan

There's no quick fix for reforming our education system. Speaking this week at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, Secretary Arne Duncan talked about his priorities for the next four years and said he was "in it" for the long haul.

While I agree with the priorities Secretary Duncan identified, I wonder if this is both bold enough and achievable given the budget challenges in Washington and the pendulum swing back to states? Have we created the right climate for success at the local, state and federal level? I worry that the initial results from the RTTT awards will cause policy makers to equivocate. Or that the anti-Common Core voices will be emboldened causing a slowdown in implementing the much-needed replacements to standardized tests.

My recommendation is that we create a clear and easily understood national campaign, embraced by every parent, student, teacher, district leader, principal and school board member: Creating a Nation of Innovators NOW. Let's see the widespread adoption of a Deeper Learning framework for every child -- offering true preparation for life after high school. Let's make a high school diploma relevant and meaningful.

Every dollar spent in education needs to support this bold mission. This is our "Man on the Moon" moment. The first four years under President Obama and Secretary Duncan have been characterized by new starts, increased accountability and granting waivers to states. However, we are still spending too much time in the 'blame game' and not enough time in the collaboration game.

First and foremost, let's stop the rush to single out individual adults -- particularly and primarily teachers -- and blame them for years of failing to serve students well. There are ineffective teachers, principals and superintendents whose poor performances need to be remedied, and if unable to improve, they need to be terminated. However, firings or re-assignments will not lead to systemic change. To truly innovate our public education systems, communities must adopt REAL accountability measures. Throw the bums out is not a way to innovate.

Next, let's take a closer look at the big choices we face. They are not black and white. The menu of change does not consist of either 'keep bad public schools' or 'open more charter schools.' I have news: there are many examples of innovative great public schools and there is much evidence to suggest charters are no better than the public schools they replaced. Teacher unions are not the cause of great teaching nor do unions prevent innovation. The use of technology in teaching and learning is no longer a question we need to raise, but asking whether your child's daily classroom experience feels relevant to the world he/she will face in college and work is debate worthy. That's what's frustrating about many elements of the national and regional debate on education reform.

It's time to start measuring educational success by aligning financial resources with performance expectations. "True" educational return on investment (ROI) deserves our undivided attention.

According to the Center for American Progress, the amount spent annually per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades, but has that led to increased student productivity or demonstrable learning gains? Are these results commensurate with the money we spend? And is educational success being achieved across the board, in every community across the country?

To ensure that every student has equal access to educational opportunities, it's time to pay attention to the way our money is spent where it is allocated. Focusing attention on how our resources are apportioned and aligning those expenditures with performance outcomes might be the best way to generate a positive return on educational investment.

Finally, we can never forget the importance of professional development. At a recent conference I attended, I saw teachers, administrators, IT staff and counselors working day and night to acquire knowledge, develop skills and create school plans necessary to transform teaching and learning at their schools. At the heart is a new pedagogy -- developing a whole school approach based on project-based learning (PBL). Let's not forget innovation in education. We can not successfully educate our students without engaging them with coursework that is real and relevant.

Secretary Duncan has a lot to think about as he and his team begin a second term. He has made it clear that his agenda is still evolving. He says this is a time to listen to folks and get their advice and input. As he puts it, "this is a chance to think big." I hope some of THESE big ideas are high on his list of priorities.