Policymaking and Innovation Mindsets

By: Joanne Weiss
About a week into my tenure as the director of the new Race to the Top program in 2009, I found myself enmeshed in policy conversations that were wholly unfamiliar to me. “I understand that you want to give states all this freedom to innovate,” I was told, “but how are we going to prevent bad actors from doing harm?”
“Bad actors?” I thought. What are “bad actors”? Bad actors, I came to learn, are incompetent, inefficient, or ill-intentioned state or district bureaucrats or administrators – people who might use the “freedoms” granted in policy in ways that harm students, waste government funds, result in scandalous acts of favoritism, or worse. The need to prevent this type of behavior has dominated policy thinking for decades.
The logical consequence of policies focused on “preventing waste, fraud, and abuse” is the creation of systems focused on compliance – systems which tend to promise the minimum (“I’ll do exactly what you require”) and document the maximum (“and I’ll record everything”). Now, no one would argue in favor of acting badly, but raising student learning outcomes takes more than not acting badly – much more.
I had come to DC after spending decades in the entrepreneurial and nonprofit worlds. There, my focus had been on supporting strong leaders as they created organizations capable of driving ever improving educational outcomes for each of their students. And to me, the Race to the Top’s theory of change was consistent with this work. Across states, we needed to spur excellence; identify and fund it; then support it, highlight it, and help disseminate nationwide the lessons learned through early successes.
In the “bad actor” conversations, I had come face-to-face with competing policy mindsets: one focused on ensuring compliance, and the other on spurring improvement through innovation. The job, I quickly realized, was to do both. There was no question that “bad actors” (and bad systems) needed to be prevented from doing harm; but there were also a lot of “good actors” and smart innovators whose ideas could help lift students’ outcomes, if given the opportunity. The challenge, then, was to introduce innovation as a policy goal while preventing (and not unintentionally enabling) abuse.
A few principles stand out as critical – each of which is worthy of deeper exploration than time and space here allow. But let me list five.
First, you need to be clear who “owns” the levers you’re trying to pull. Race to the Top sought to spark system-wide change, and states control most of these levers – from standards, curriculum, and assessment, to teacher licensure and tenure, to school funding and accountability (and on and on). So we focused on putting the Governors, State Chiefs, and State Education Boards – together with their willing districts – in the driver’s seat.
Second, competition is a powerful motivator in America – the desire to be the first, to achieve a grand goal, has always galvanized strong teams to come together and solve important problems. So we harnessed this. We set a high bar for success; we put a lot of funding behind a small number of winners (rather than thinly spreading the funds across many beneficiaries, as is so often done when politics trumps outcomes); and we used our bully pulpit to celebrate and recognize applicants. Grant competitions and prizes can channel innovation if they’re pointed in the right directions and supported in the right ways.
Third, we were “tight on the goals but loose on the means” to encourage diversity of solutions, rather than one-size-fits-all thinking. We defined the goals (around the so-called “four assurances,” the key pillars of any educational system), then asked states to tell us how they’d get there. Each proposal was different, based on the state’s unique needs, strengths, and areas for improvement. And each was judged using a rubric that valued the likelihood of implementation as much as the quality of the concepts, since ideas without execution don’t drive outcomes.
Fourth, risk-taking (including the potential for failure) is critical to innovation. But failure is the nemesis of compliance. This tension had to be addressed – and we did it by allowing states to deviate from their plans if (and only if) they had developed more efficient or effective ways of achieving their goals. Thus, evidence-based decision-making became critical to implementation. By keeping the goals constant but allowing changes in how to get there, the government could ensure that taxpayer resources were being well deployed – and states were properly incented to innovate and improve rather than blindly comply.
Finally, while confidentiality is a mainstay of private company innovation, transparency is an important lever in the public sector. It drives up quality and accelerates learning. When work is shared publicly, reputations are on display and creators strive for excellence. Further, by reviewing each other’s work, applicants and grantees develop a clear and shared understanding of what “good” looks like, a marketplace for ideas emerges, and a shared vocabulary is created. In addition, external resources are more easily mobilized to support the work -watchdogs keep their state leaders honest; experts contribute their knowledge; and the media has access to better information for its stories.
A policy environment that treats compliance as the “floor” below which we must not fall, but that sets its sights on enabling innovation to lift the “ceiling” for every student – that’s the “holy grail” of education policy. It’s complex and requires cultural and behavioral changes for both policymakers and grantees, so incentives and consequences have to be carefully thought through. But it’s the right work to be doing if the U.S. wants to reclaim its position as a global leader in educating its people.
Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and director of the federal Race to the Top program, is an independent consultant to organizations on education programs, technologies, and policy. For the past fifteen years, she has focused on driving systems-level education change through high-impact grant making, investing, and policymaking. Prior to that, Joanne led companies that pioneered technology-based approaches to solving teaching and learning challenges in K-12 and higher education. She has a degree in biochemistry from Princeton University and lives in D.C.

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