Revising federal rules would promote innovation in schools, improve student performance
In times of scarce resources and limited dollars, finding cost-effective ways to promote innovations in education is imperative. If federal education officials really want to help improve student performance, they should be doing all they can to promote technology-driven innovations in public schools.
While some federal initiatives have been aimed at promoting innovation in education, some of the fiscal requirements of two large federal education programs stand in the way.
In Federal Barriers to Innovation, a new report from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), authors Raegen Miller and Robin Lake identify three fiscal requirements that encourage the status quo, instilling in districts a profound deference for existing staffing and spending patterns.
The Title I comparability loophole, for instance, prevents districts from adopting promising new technology–based school models. If a district has a high-poverty school staffed with inexperienced, lower-paid teachers, and an affluent school of the same size staffed with the same number of more experienced, higher-paid teachers, those schools are considered to have comparable staffing levels. The loophole masks the true educational costs of schools, reinforces a traditional compensation system that favors tenure and post-graduate education, and prevents districts from differentiating pay in strategic ways.
The authors also find that the federal rules and enforcement to ensure that local districts use Title I funds to supplement rather than replace or supplant local funding create a risk-averse culture that discourages local initiative and innovation.
Lead author Raegan Miller writes, “The machinery and culture of compliance around the supplement-not-supplant requirement . . . are so rigid and stultifying as to frustrate the essential policy goal of the Title I program: to enhance the educational experience of eligible students in high-needs schools.”
To comply with the IDEA Part B maintenance of effort requirement, districts typically continue spending resources in a given program without regard for its efficiency or effectiveness. Efforts by the U.S. Department of Education to modestly relax this rule have met with strong opposition by advocates for special education interests. But such rigid adherence to continued spending practices remains a barrier to the use of innovative teaching methods and technologies that could benefit students with special needs.
“Binding instructional choices to a specific level of spending is anathema to innovation, and it curbs the immense promise for technology-driven productivity gains in schools,” write the authors.
In order to unleash the innovations and creativity that can lead to better schools better prepared to educate America’s 21st century workforce, Miller and Lake call for modifications to these requirements. Specifically:
- Close the Title I comparability loophole. This would allow comparisons of services in terms of actual dollars spent, and as districts refine their abilities to report school-level expenditures, that information would feed a growing interest in the efficacy and cost of interventions aimed at improving student outcomes.
- Streamline the Title I supplement-not-supplant requirement. Districts should be allowed to document “that the manner in which they allocate state and local resources to schools is neutral with respect to which schools receive Title 1 funds.” This would be a more objective test of whether funds are being used as intended, and it would free up administrative and clerical resources.
- Institute a “challenge waiver” system for IDEA Part B maintenance of effort. Districts could be granted waivers for the 100 percent spending threshold on special education and related services “provided they furnish a coherent, strategic special education plan documenting the rationale for a lower threshold.” Such a system would encourage more data-driven decision-making, while random audits would ensure fidelity of implementation.
- Keep the ball rolling with innovation-friendly programs. Tearing down high-profile statutory barriers to technology-driven innovation may not do much to change the culture of compliance prevailing in state education agencies and districts, so policymakers should complement these changes with continued or enhanced support for programs and initiatives—such as i3, ARPA-ED, and the initiatives housed in the Office of Educational Technology—that foster behaviors associated with a climate of innovation.
“Modifying these specific fiscal requirements would not only break down barriers to innovation,” said Lake, Director of CRPE, “it would promote smarter, fairer uses of taxpayer money to support public education.”
In the midst of federal budget pressures, the authors recommend redirecting Title II funds (an amalgam of funding streams supporting ineffectual professional development and class-size reduction programs) toward federal programs and initiatives designed to develop effective new instructional technologies and take them to scale.