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A New Model for Innovation, Even in the Smallest School Districts

‘Clustering’ to share developers and resources, ‘lab sites’ both to learn and to be free to fail

adam d. fried
Adam D. Fried

In this new digital ecosystem, the connection between technology, innovation, and ultimately student success is dependent on the ability to create, produce, and implement programs that support the needs of the 54.8 million students in the United States. Throughout schools in the United States, districts are at some point on the continuum of integrating innovative learning experiences into their curriculums, spaces, practices, and policies.

Throughout the United States districts are engaged in a call to action in understanding the crossroad between the procurement process and meeting the needs of the students they serve. Most districts lack reliable information on products, while most developers lack the ability to understand, connect, and engage with the district, which would impact product design and development. Integrated innovation becomes reality when schools, students, and teachers can readily access the tools that meet their goals. The success of the edtech market depends on creating a designed ecosystem where education is at the center. Financial success will be marked by increased teacher practice and student growth, while developers will rely on school districts as test beds in an R&D process. Critical elements to the success of this process is a region that is open to innovation, and research universities willing to study the impact of this process. The success of any innovation cluster will be based on the relationship and connection between these two moving parts.

We believe that to move the agenda forward in education an educational innovation cluster must be created, and New Jersey is leaning in on its development.

Money’s a finite resource in the public-school sector, so whatever is being purchased -- whether provided service or product -- needs to be considered with great care. Educators cannot have every tool they’d like, no matter how necessary or beneficial. This frustrating reality is a particular challenge for small districts that, nearly by definition, have meager budgets. Which is why those with some degree of input into a small district’s purchasing decisions need to be aware of an important alternative to the traditional model for acquiring services.

For decades, each district -- large or small, urban or suburban -- assessed its needs and financial resources, prioritized, and purchased what it could. But now -- and keeping in mind our emphasis is on small districts -- we have an inventive, new option. We can establish direct, mutually beneficial relationships with innovation developers. Such a model allows smaller districts to save money -- versus working with one-size-fits-all legacy providers -- while providing developers an opportunity to work with us in a lab-site model on answering our essential questions as well as getting quality feedback on their growth. We believe that as districts we are far more nimble to go to scale with a developer. Our ability to pivot makes the time and energy that a developer spends in a district give them and the district the greatest bang for the buck.

The Northern New Jersey Cluster (Northern Ignite) capitalizes on pockets of excellence that are region-specific, unique and accessible. New Jersey’s area of excellence and innovation fits the needs of the cluster concept. These traits, listed below, showcase the reason why Northern Ignite is committing time and efforts to development of the cluster concept in order to spark growth in the tri-state area.

  • Innovative schools and learning environments: New Jersey currently boasts 615 separate school districts and local education agencies (LEAs), each with its own set of unique strengths and areas needing additional supports that can easily be matchmaker with companies looking for test beds, lab sites, and feedback.

  • Research centers: World-class research universities and colleges with a bent towards community partnerships.

  • Entrepreneur supports: New Jersey has a strong and growing history of startup industry growth and incubation. New leadership at the school-leadership level is focused on innovation, economic change, and workforce development.

  • Knowledge-sharing platforms and supports: Growing body of work and organizations focused on coalition-building, collaboration, and collective impact, with organizations dedicated to creating data stories that are relevant, accessible, and supportive of local work.

One of the most attractive benefits for nimble districts is related to a critical element: the relationship. In dealing with a developer that critical relationship helps to guarantee the full commitment of all involved. The fact that services are being provided by a small group or even just one individual helps add accountability and transparency by stripping away excessive layers of the bureaucracy that has been created over decades. To borrow an expression, all involved have skin in the game.

For the past two years I have been able to bring in developers and empower my staff to look at their essential questions and how they can be supported in this new ecosystem. The goal is to create teachers who are fearless -- fearless in the belief that they need to take chances in the disruption of this industrialized and bureaucratic model.

While a single district could struggle to tap the full capabilities of an expert, the “cluster” model can potentially alter the education paradigm. Quite simply, clustering refers to a sharing of valuable resources. This can be by several small districts working in unison, or multiple entities within a single community -- like schools, local governments, emergency services, and others.

Ultimately, clusters represent an extremely potent level of networking, by targeting and then reaching for standards of effectiveness that would be unreachable by an individual district. And lest anyone thinks that only a limited percentage of districts can avail themselves of the strategy of working with independent developers, consider that my home state, New Jersey, has over 600 public school districts -- and some 400 of them would be considered small, by having fewer than 2,500 students.

Business administrators and others who may be accustomed to working with the legacy providers who have dominated purchasing for so long may face a transition to the concept of interaction with individual developers and staff having a real say in the innovation that is happening in their classrooms. Of course, smaller providers are already central players in many industries, and by virtue of hailing from around the globe; they provide the additional benefit of expanding the pool of potential solutions for any need or problem.

Looking ahead to the changes that ongoing relationships with innovation developers will create for school districts, it’s time to drop the tired concept of pilot programs, with their vague, doubtful connotations. Developers strongly dislike the pilot model, because it creates uncertainty about even an effective service or program’s sustainability. Instead, we should turn to a “lab-site” concept -- an opportunity to test offerings and learn as we go. In failure is growth and learning, and as educators we need to re-embrace that it’s OK to fail as we are learning.

Think about the impact this would have in our schools where best practices are developed and challenged in a research model. Where we empower teachers to take the big step in developing innovative practices and allowing them to share outside of the silos we’ve created. We believe this work will allow public schools to become and embrace the lean startup model of thinking.

Overall, smaller districts -- which is to say the majority of New Jersey’s school districts -- need vendors and developers who are thoroughly invested in their pain point, and are passionate about providing tools and solutions that are the best possible option for their cluster. We may enjoy the sizzle and flash of new technology, but it’s not what we’re seeking from developers. Rather, we require pure innovation -- the creativity that enables us to upgrade our students’ capacity for learning.

It’s an emphasis on independent developers -- plus employment of some form of clustering model -- that can put a higher degree of educational achievement within reach, even for the smallest local districts.

Adam D. Fried is the superintendent of the Harrington Park school district.

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