The passage of the stimulus bill last week instantly doubled the federal role in funding schools, with an unprecedented influx of $95 billion. The question is, in education, what will that money buy?
Most of the answer is jobs: fewer pink slips for teachers, and dirt finally moving on long-stalled construction projects. Yet in a welcome and farsighted move, the Recovery Act not only shores up the system, it also invests in fixing it where it’s broken.
In California alone, tens of thousands of school jobs are at risk now, and the vast majority of education spending in the bill rightly targets saving jobs and restoring state budgets. In mere weeks, we likely will see school building projects finally break ground, after long delays forced by the shutdown of California’s bond authority.
Yet the bill also takes short-term steps toward reform and innovation that will pay long-term dividends, helping to make America’s economy competitive again. Reform is an essential element of recovery, because an educated work force is the core of our productivity.
That thinking underlies the $5 billion Race to the Top fund, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan will distribute to states to make critically needed short-term improvements that will lead to major gains for students. Within that fund is $650 million aimed at innovation to begin correcting the sore lack of research and development education.
We claim no special insight on the decisions Duncan will make, but it’s worth pondering: What does innovation in education look like?
For starters, the federal government will invest in building data systems, so we can stop driving without a dashboard and see clearly the progress students are making. Most states today, including California, cannot accurately track a student’s academic performance subject by subject, year by year, much less week by week. That information is central to smart decision-making for teachers, parents, administrators and policy makers. Such systems will make every education dollar more effective.
International tests prove that American students lag behind their peers in other industrialized nations. In part, this is because we don’t ask enough of our kids. The Race to the Top fund encourages states to develop rigorous, internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards as well as thoughtful assessments that go beyond filling in bubbles.
But kids in failing schools need more than just rigorous standards and assessments; they need schools that work better. Toward that end, the recovery bill includes a “Grow What Works” fund that will expand innovative programs proven to make a real difference for low-income kids.
That approach will help to scale up organizations and ideas that come from both inside and outside the traditional system. Organizations like KIPP, Teach For America and Aspire Public Schools have helped to blaze this trail, creating outstanding public schools and putting thousands of great teachers in the classroom; this funding will help scale up organizations in that mold. The ideas could range from new pathways for teacher training to public-private partnerships that fix failing schools. What they will have in common is a track record of improving education.
After decades of under-investment in innovation, this badly needed funding will foster new technologies, alter classrooms and, ultimately, help reverse the slide in our international competitiveness. It’s more than just rescuing the schools that got us to where we are today. To fuel a lasting recovery, we have to build a system that works better.
Ted Mitchell is the chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based philanthropy NewSchools Venture Fund and the president of the California state board of education. Reed Hastings is the founder and CEO of Netflix and a former member of the California state board of education. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.