Want to Make Education More Innovative? Let’s Invest in R&D

This week IEN shares a post from Jeff Wetzler, a co-founder of Transcend and Transcend senior fellow Sujata Bhatt. This post, originally published in EdSurge, was written for a US audience but the international parallels are clear. As Bhatt and Wetzler explain: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, education systems around the globe have awakened to the urgent need to redesign schools to become more relevant and equitable. Innovation is no longer an optional pathway; it needs to be fundamental to how schools and systems operate. We need to redesign our teaching and learning infrastructure to embrace and meet local needs. Doing so means growing local community capacity to reinvent how students experience learning, and redesigning regional and national systems to support innovation at the local level. This piece was written specifically to describe what schools in the US could do to support R&D by using funding for schools made available by the passage of American Rescue Plan Act in March, but the approaches outlined here can readily be applied in all kinds of systems in the US and around the globe. In the past the federal government of the United States has created large funding programs like the School Improvement Grants (SIG) referred to in the article, and they have had little impact because they did not focus on growing the innovation R&D capacity of systems. In this piece, we ask, How might education systems respond differently this time?”

In 2019, the United States spent 2.8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on Research and Development (R&D). R&D is our nation’s engine of innovation. It put that smartphone in your hand, that solar panel on your roof, and that COVID-19 vaccine in your arm. R&D unquestionably makes our lives better.

“[O]ur education system needs to innovate to make it more equitable, agile, relevant and responsive.”

At a basic level, R&D is the set of activities an organization undertakes to innovate—using research techniques to solve problems or learn new things. During the crises of 2020-21, we clearly saw that our education system needs to innovate to make it more equitable, agile, relevant and responsive. We learned that education conditions are intensely local; they vary dramatically in each and every community, limiting the usefulness of one-size-fits-all solutions. We also saw many communities embracing local innovation because they had to.

The Community-Based Innovation Opportunity

Over the next few months, the Federal Government is infusing $122.8 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding into our education system. This unprecedented investment offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redesign our teaching and learning infrastructure from the ground up by empowering local school communities to innovate.

Why local communities? During the pandemic, systems, schools, teachers, families and students began innovating to make different kinds of education possible. Perea Elementary in Memphis, for example redesigned how parents, teachers, and children support each other in virtual, in-person, and hybrid settings.

Contrary to the prevalent narrative of learning pods as the province of privilege, Edgecombe County Schools in North Carolina created learning pods for students without wifi access. The Oglala District, serving indigenous Lakota families in South Dakota, designed the Lakota Oyate Homeschool Coop to meet the needs of children who were disengaged and worried about both cultural and physical safety. This inventive renaissance needs to be supported and sustained. As these examples show, we learned that families and students want greater involvement, including the opportunity to infuse cultural values and traditions into what has been a one-size-fits-all model of schooling. We also know from previous funding programs like School Improvement Grants (SIG) that large infusions of federal funds can be less than successful if states, districts and schools do not work in collaboration to grow conditions for innovation at the local level. Why not bring these learnings and agents for change together to grow capacity for school communities to lead their own innovation journeys?

What if we—each state, each regional agency, each district, each school—were to commit to spending even just 2.8 percent of our ESSER funding to catalyze deep, broad, local, community-based innovation? What if we used this tiny percentage of our massive federal windfall to reinvent our education system by building strong local conditions, particularly the capacity of each and every school to apply evidence-based approaches to reinventing teaching and learning?

It starts with a small step: take evidence-based methods and models that we know work now, and seed and sustain them in local contexts so they can take root, grow, and spread.

With this small investment, we could leapfrog our nation’s PK-12 system from our current inequitable industrial era learning model to equitable, 21st century learning—and thereby create an education sector that is prepared to be flexible, agile, and resilient when the next crisis comes along. It starts with a small step: take evidence-based methods and models that we know work now, and seed and sustain them in local contexts so they can take root, grow, and spread.

How Might States, Regions, and Districts Develop and Support Local School Communities’ Innovation Capacity?

Below are two powerful, locally empowering strategies that states, regional service centers, and districts could use to focus their 2.8 percent R&D Reinvention investments:


Invest in capacity for community-based redesign and evidence-based efforts with long-term impact.

  1. A Local Reinvention Team in Every School: Invest in teachers, families, parents and students to form teams that can design and prototype learning experiences that are customized to create equitable, responsive, 21st century schools. When schools reopen, they face inimitable challenges in redesigning learning for students who return from a year of crises with varying strengths, skills, knowledge and needs. The focus, pace and sequence of learning, as well as the resources and supports provided, need to be tailored to each learner’s identity, prior knowledge, development, way of learning and life experiences—which requires designing new types of learning experiences collectively and coherently—not classroom by individual classroom. This is deep, creative, team-based innovation requiring listening, passion and energy while driving collaboratively towards a defined mission. Districts and states could resource (via Title I or II funds, or a separate Innovation fund) participation in these reinvention teams, which would develop innovation capacity for educators, families and students.
  2. Access to an Innovation Specialist: Invest in giving school reinvention teams temporary (2-3 years) access to innovation specialists explicitly tasked with growing local capacity to own and carry on the work. Innovation is not a haphazard process; R&D entails methods rigor, and expertise. These methods and mindsets are not widespread in the pre-K-12 sector, and they need to be. Innovation specialists who have expertise in these methods could be explicitly tasked with growing reinvention teams’ capacity to design and run rigorous R&D pilots so that over time the school community has the skills, methods and confidence to develop a transformational school design unsupported by coaches.
  3. Create system-level Innovation Funds that enable schools to access and adapt innovative models: Support school communities in investing in and implementing high-quality, evidence-based learning models that are equitable and responsive to the demands and opportunities of the 21st century.

“Every school needs to reinvent itself to support diverse learners survive and thrive in complex environments. However, the experiences need not be created and recreated by scratch in each and every school.

Every school needs to reinvent itself to support diverse learners survive and thrive in complex environments. However, the experiences need not be created and recreated by scratch in each and every school. School reinvention teams and communities should be able to adapt and adopt models developed elsewhere, particularly ones that are equitable, rigorous and evidence-based (and codified in the model libraries described below). To do so requires funding to pay for the models and for the innovation specialists who support the initial adaption process.


  1. Invest in regional and state-wide reinvention capacity-building structures.Innovation Connectivity: Invest in leadership relationships and development by convening groups of school and systems leaders who are actively engaged in reinvention so that leadership capacity grows and knowledge may be shared across those networked groups. Innovation requires a different type of leadership; one that builds opportunities and guardrails rather than managing top-down compliance. Systems leaders need support in growing their capacity to lead innovation this way, and they need to be connected to others because innovation spreads through networks. These networks of innovative leaders need to be resourced and built. Launching, supporting and sustaining innovation networks across schools within districts and across districts within a region and state would be a valuable use of funds.
  2. Model Libraries: Invest in documenting innovative learning experiences and models via video and design blueprints, as well as funding regional and national “libraries” and platforms that allow systems and schools to borrow from each others’ experiences and models, thereby accelerating the spread of reinvention.

There are inspiring bright spots across the country that can supply others with inspiration and tangible approaches to implement. These innovative models are centered on equity, effective learning and human flourishing, so that all young people not only maximize their own potential but also see, confront and tackle society’s greatest challenges. Documenting evidence-based models that other communities can borrow and adapt, rather than reinventing the wheel each time, saves time and money.

It is impossible to forecast all of the crises, ruptures, and even opportunities that lie ahead. Imagine if each school, each district, each state chose to spend a mere 2.8 percent of their ESSER funds to proactively build capacity and infrastructure for this unknown future. These proven strategies have the power to yield an unprecedented return on investment for our children.

— Jeff Wetzler & Sujata Bhatt

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