Should Washington Become a Venture Capitalist for Education?

Conservatives and libertarians have long been skeptical of the federal role in education. The Department of Education is frequently offered up as a candidate for closure. More recently there’s been talk of a Medicaid-education swap where Washington would take full control of the former, the state the latter. Others would like to transform the federal role. During his presidential campaign, Jon Huntsman advocated a Department of Education Reform with Washington “acting as a clearinghouse for information and ideas, empowering states and local communities to take ownership of education reform.”

AEI’s Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly point out that on the K-12 level, the federal government “has enjoyed real success in ensuring constitutional protections, using the bully pulpit to spotlight national education priorities, offering states incentives to implement bright-line policy, and fostering greater transparency.” One area where government hasn’t done so well is promoting innovation. I had that reality in mind as I read about the latest big education idea from Democrats:

 The way students learn and teachers educate could be dramatically improved through a new venture-like capital program introduced yesterday by U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) to benefit student learning.

Modeled after similar research programs in the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED) Act will pursue technological breakthrough developments that have the potential to transform teaching and learning the way DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has supported the development of  world-changing technologies such as the Internet, GPS and robotics.

“We must close the gap between cutting edge research and technology and their real-world impact on classrooms and students,” said Rep. Miller. “Schools need help to keep pace with quickly changing technology, research, and innovation to prepare students for the world of tomorrow. This legislation will provide an opportunity for us to dream big ideas, experiment and test our most radical hypotheses, and immediately implement those solutions that prove effective.

My enthusiasm for this idea is somewhat tempered also by the fact that two minutes before reading about ARPA-ED, I had read a tough analysis of ARPA-E, an agency created in 2009 to fund the development of early stage energy technologies at university labs and small companies.

Anyway, it seems to me there’s plenty of education innovation going on. The real problem is the implementation of that innovation, such as the accreditation of online courses and using technology more effectively within the classroom. As Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, coauthors of Disrupting Class, have written:

The United States has spent more than $60 billion equipping schools with computers during the last two decades, but as countless studies and any routine observation reveal, the computers have not transformed the classroom, nor has their use boosted learning as measured by test scores. Instead, technology and computers have tended merely to sustain and add cost to the existing system.

That schools have gotten so little back from their investment comes as no surprise. Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing an innovation. An organization’s natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is perfectly predictable, perfectly logical — and perfectly wrong.

The key to transforming the classroom with technology is in how it is implemented. We need to introduce the innovation disruptively — not by using it to compete against the existing paradigm and serve existing customers, but to target those who are not being served — people we call nonconsumers. That way, all the new approach has to do is be better than the alternative — which is nothing at all.

  1. Eric Hines

    Washington shouldn’t be a venture capitalist for anything at all, much less for education.  We have only to look at Energy’s venture capitalism success rate to see why.

    Even stipulating, arguendo, that DoE’s (and the Federal government’s generally) venture success rate is in line with private capital’s venture success rates, this isn’t private capital being risked–it’s not even government’s money being risked (it’s private citizens’ tax money), so that there are no risk considerations in play when the Feds gamble.

    As to AEI’s Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly, I suggest they’ve done incomplete research.  This “Dear Colleague” letter (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104.pdf) sent by Education’s Office for Civil Rights gives a more accurate picture of DoEd’s interest in “ensuring constitutional protections.”

    Eric Hines

  2. Barkha Herman

    I say yes, because, I am sure that the 200 year old entitlement will be the last to go if at all.

    So the choice really is should Washington be a Union Shop, which is the current reality, or should it be a venture capitalist?  The later I say.

  3. Fred Cole

    Government is the scatological cousin of King Midas.

    Extrapolate appropriately.

  4. Flapjack

    So, I’m not sure that I understand correctly – because localities and states have done such a poor job of using technology to revolutionize the classroom, the federal gov’t should be trusted to find folks who can find ways to implement technology?

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Since federal aid to education began in the 1950s, illiteracy has gained ground. Ask any old professor: “What were students like forty years ago? What are they like to day?” Back then, high school graduates could write; now, they cannot. Twelve years of incarceration in the public schools, and nothing to show for it.

    We do not need more technology in the classroom. We need the three Rs.

  6. Flapjack
    We do not need more technology in the classroom. We need the three Rs. · 5 minutes ago

    Indeed!  My last stint as a teacher included 2 years during which I only taught literature texts – nothing from an “official” textbook – to high school freshmen.  Very, very low tech and very effective for the first two of the three Rs.

  7. Barkha Herman
    Paul A. Rahe: Since federal aid to education began in the 1950s, illiteracy has gained ground. Ask any old professor: “What were students like forty years ago? What are they like to day?” Back then, high school graduates could write; now, they cannot. Twelve years of incarceration in the public schools, and nothing to show for it.

    We do not need more technology in the classroom. We need the three Rs. · 5 minutes ago

    I don’t see it as a battle between technology and not  as much as I see it as a battle between the stronghold of “tenured” teachers and their supporting behemoth of staff and union vs. innovation that will “disrupt” the status quo. 

    I got a better education in a non-air-conditioned, dusty chalk and black board using classroom in India than most kids do in the US today.  The issue is not more computers in the class room, but the Government monopoly.

    I see allowing “experiments” in K-12 education as breaking the monopoly.  If the Central planners have to do anything (that being the premise here), it might as well be to create competition.

  8. Margaret Sarah

    Gates Foundation is just now funding a huge program of medium and small grants to develop online educational programs. There are tons of publishers and consultants already investing their own capital in this business.

    The federal DoE funds educational research and research organizations to promote programs that have been proven effective. State and private universities, state departments of education, regional offices of education, and county and local education partners are all involved. Research on educational uses of technology, as well as lots of other kinds of educational research, is already being funded.

    Only trouble is, it is very difficult to get teachers to change the way they teach to implement research-based methods. Teacher evaluation based at least 50% on student results, and modification of tenure and union rules to allow the least effective teachers to be removed, would make much more difference in education than this proposed research.

    But you know

  9. aconservativeintheclassroom

    I completely agree with the 3Rs approach to education. I’m a teacher and the amount of money I’ve seen invested in technology makes me physically ill. There is no silver bullet to improving education in the US, so more technology is not necessarily the answer. According to my students, some of the best lessons have been discussion-based; very low-tech. I’m for more power to the districts and teachers to make decisions based on the individual needs of students. One size fits all is not the answer–think Obamacare or any other big government program.

  10. Keith
    Paul A. Rahe: Since federal aid to education began in the 1950s, illiteracy has gained ground. Ask any old professor: “What were students like forty years ago? What are they like to day?” Back then, high school graduates could write; now, they cannot. Twelve years of incarceration in the public schools, and nothing to show for it.

    We do not need more technology in the classroom. We need the three Rs. · 5 hours ago

    This.

    And I woud argue that the more money Washington pours into Education, the worse it gets. 

    We are living with the fruits of an entitlement culture. A whole class of Moochers that can’t even be bothered to teach their kids colors, the alphabet or how to count to 10.

    Until the culture changes (don’t hold your breath) there is no amount of money that will make a difference.

    If you want to have a good public school education, find a small town school district that has to compete with a Catholic school, that also has a good science teacher that is involved with Super Mileage or FIRST Robotics, etc.

    Good Luck.