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.