Skip to main content

Innovation, Accountability are Crucial to Education Reform, Official Says At Conference

The United States has to change its educational culture and spending patterns to become more accountable and innovative if it hopes to prosper in an increasingly competitive world, the U.S. Department of Education’s innovation chief said a recent conference co-sponsored by AAAS.

Major federal education initiatives such as No Child Left Behind have put standardized measurement systems in place, said James H. Shelton III, the department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. Teachers and education systems, he stressed, will be held accountable for the development of their students.

“We now are at the point and time where we know enough to start to organize ourselves in ways that leads to timely breakthroughs [in education and learning] that we have seen in other areas” of the economy, Shelton said.

James H. Shelton III

He delivered a plenary address at the Seventh Annual National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program Conference. The meeting drew more than 600 program participants from over 225 colleges and universities to Washington, D.C., from 23-25 May. AAAS’s Education and Human Resources programs, which has collaborated on the program for the past five years, helped to organize the invitation-only meeting.

It is not that the U.S. has fallen behind, Shelton said. “What has happened is the U.S. has remained static and other countries have passed us by,” he said. “We have these really great isolated examples of excellence all around the country, yet we have still not figured out how to grow from those isolated examples to a system that produces outstanding outcomes for each student.”

While the federal government provides less than 10% of total funding for education, it is the largest single source of funding and “sends incredible signals out about what is important and what is not,” he said. “But at the Department of Education, we have not always been very intentional about the signals that we send.”

One of those mixed signals has been to higher education, where the emphasis has been on programs to get students admitted to colleges and universities, with little attention given to making sure that students succeed once they are admitted.

The department has sought greater accountability in terms of student retention and graduation rates. However, Shelton said there has been disappointment that some who benefit from the status quo have resisted those efforts.

An Ecosystem for Innovation

He argued that innovation, particularly sustainable innovation, “happens in the context of ecosystems” of teachers, administrators, parents, communities, policies, and political leaders who are supportive of that change.

“The opportunity that we have,” Shelton said, “is to reconceive what it is that an ecosystem for innovation in education excellence looks like.”

The Noyce conference attendees are key to that process, he said. “We can create an entirely different ecosystem [for education] in a really short period of time. But it takes will and vision to do so.”

The status quo is strong, Shelton said. It will only change if “you ask that fundamental question—‘Why do I do this the way I’m doing it, and is there a better way?’—and demand the type of ecosystem that will support such change.”

Shelton lamented that the field of education invests less than 0.5% of gross annual expenditures on research and development. Most growing sectors of the economy spend 10-20%, and even the staid utility industry spends 2-3%, he said. “Should we be surprised that we haven’t seen the kinds of advances in tools and resources available to students that we have seen in other areas of our lives?”

While the percentage of total federal money put into educational R&D is small, much of it is concentrated in the Education Department. Federal grants often are quite flexible in the types of innovative programs they can support, he said, and they can have a substantial impact on local activities.

Shelton labeled as “urban myths” many of the purported restrictions on the use of federal money. “When people tell you that you cannot [do something], you need to question it and go to the source.”

Changing Rules of Accountability

The No Child Left Behind initiative for grades K-12 has sought to increase the accountability of educational systems. Shelton explained there was general agreement on the principles of the law but some disappointment in how those principles were implemented and the failure to fix identified problems over time.

Data systems are now in place, he said, “to do analysis that we could never do before…to figure out what lessons work best, which misconceptions are the biggest problems.”

Shelton pushed back on the assertion by some that “the testing regimen [accompanying increased accountability] alone has driven a narrowing of the curriculum,” underscoring that is not the case with better schools.

He said some people are operating with a flawed hypothesis: “They are doubling down on reading, writing, and mathematics to the exclusion of other things,” and doing more of the same kinds of instruction in old, ineffective ways.

In fact, he said, “basic skills can be integrated into other subject matter and well-rounded education can enhance performance in the core.”

“If you can’t figure out how to change the rules, then don’t expect anything different to happen,” he said. “So we have changed the rules. Everyone is going to be judged, in some form or fashion, in some small part, by how the children are doing.”

Significant new resources are being poured into federal programs and problem schools to try to turn the situation around. “We are already seeing in the first rigorous studies that have come out that, even in the first year, which is typically unheard of, 25% of those schools have demonstrated gains in reading and math,” Shelton said.

The Race to the Top Fund, a competitive federal grant program that debuted in 2009 to encourage state education reforms, is among the new resources offered. Shelton said the next phase of the program, a new $400 million competition for school districts, “is about how do you fundamentally transform the teaching and learning experience between the teacher and student.”


Learn more about the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

View the complete program for the 2012 Noyce Conference.