Designing A Network Of Education Innovation Clusters

Steven Hodas

In Pittsburgh last August, Digital Promise and the U.S. Department of Education hosted the first national gathering of Education Innovation Clusters (“EICs”). EICs are local communities of practice that bring together educators, startups, policymakers, investors, researchers, and community groups across the usual boundaries that separate them. The goal is to improve the shared understanding of needs and opportunities so that more effective and more authentic tools and practices are developed to meet the challenges that face our schools.

Over the past several years clusters have taken root in Pittsburgh, New York City, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, Rhode Island and elsewhere around the country and around the world. Each has a unique character and trajectory influenced by local conditions and the goals, perspectives, and capabilities of its partner organizations.

Any city can benefit from organizing their own cluster. EICs are organic think (and do) tanks, “third places” defined by collaboration and productivity rather than authority and institutional ownership. They’re where you go to broaden your perspective, add to your toolbox, and expand your array of collaborators to get done things that are unlikely to happen within the conventional bounds of your own organization. They are the the ideal R&D Lab for Smart Cities. The motto for any cluster could be: “All of us are smarter than any of us.”

That Pittsburgh convening afforded a preliminary overview of what was going on across the country and served to introduce the clusters and their work to one another. It was clear to the participants and to us that there is real benefit in sharing lessons learned and resources more widely. Digital Promise believes that EICs can be unique fulcrums for important change in district and school practice, as well as in the marketplace. They represent a powerful site of convergence of the work we have undertaken to support innovative school practices, procurement improvement, and next–gen teacher PD.

It’s become clear in my work as an entrepreneur inside and outside of school systems over the past 20 years that the power of innovation–as–a–noun—no matter whether the “thing” is a policy, a device, or a piece of software—pales in comparison to innovation–as–a–verb, the set of habits that entrepreneurs and problem–solvers use to go about their work. That dynamism is what’s most likely to engage and invigorate educators and administrators and enable them to better meet all the known and unknown challenges ahead.

In Providence, for example, the Highlander Institute runs events like EdUnderground that encourage teachers who are interested in “fringe” skills like coding, making, design and digital media creation to explore ways of incorporating them into their classroom practice. At Innovate NYC Schools we introduced user–centered design and lean startup methodologies to the day–to–day workings of central office ops.

Developing those new habits requires exactly the type of support and reinforcement that EICs are ideally equipped to provide. So I’m delighted to be working with Digital Promise on the design of this exciting new project.

With funding from the Grable Foundation, we’re launching the design phase of the Innovation Cluster Network, a hybrid R&D–and–support structure for EICs. The Innovation Cluster Network will help seed clusters in communities without them and support existing clusters to become more robust and effective. Crucially, it will create structures that enable EICs around the country and around the world to interoperate in ways that facilitate the flow of good policy, good practice, and good products across the education ecosystem.

You’ll be hearing more from us and our partners over the next few months via @DigitalPromise. In the meantime if you have any questions or inspirations, please send them to league

For more on clusters, check out:

stevenSteven Hodas was most recently Executive Director at the NYCDOE’s Office of Innovation, where he launched InnovateNYCSchools. He is currently Practitioner in Residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Follow Steven on Twitter with @stevenhodas.

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