Achieving Excellence and Equity: The U.S. Department of Education’s Strategic Plan Released for Public Comment

View the Department of Education’s draft FY2014-2018 Strategic Plan here. Please submit all comments to strategicplancomments@ed.gov. All comments must be received by Friday, October 4th at 5pm.

The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access to quality educational opportunities. Every four years, the Department of Education has the opportunity to share our strategic plan for achieving this mission—making clear our goals and how the Department will meet them. Too often, achieving excellence and equity has been relegated to a wish rather than elevated as an attainable goal. This plan attempts to make clear how we will define and attain this audacious goal; and we hope to get your input.

Ensuring America once again leads the world in post-secondary completion by 2020 is the North Star guiding all our work at the Department of Education. The basic arithmetic of achieving this goal requires improvement at every level of education—from school entry to post-secondary enrollment and completion—and for all populations, including the historically underserved, from poor children to displaced adults.

We must address existing opportunity gaps so that all youth, beginning at birth, have access to a high-quality education and graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers. Dramatically improving learning and life outcomes across the spectrum means that we must identify and develop significantly more effective and more scalable approaches to our most persistent educational challenges.

Read More

Unlocking Human Potential: The Cost of Conflating Potential and Performance

Jim Shelton

Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton speaks at TEDx MidAtlantic on Saturday, October 27, 2012.

I recently gave a TEDx MidAtlantic talk entitled Unlocking Human Potential: Why We Need a New Infrastructure for Learning about Learning. My premise was that we have the opportunity to tap into vast amounts of latent human potential; but, to do so quickly, we need to build a new national research agenda and apparatus focused on breakthrough learning outcomes.

The theme of this TEDx event was Be Fearless: Take Risks. Be Bold. Fail Forward — IMHO a perfect theme for all of education today. I have come to believe that “being fearless” requires one to ask oneself two foundational questions: (1) What do you believe (is possible), and (2) what are you willing to do? Therefore, I began my talk by addressing a common misconception that limits our ability to believe unprecedented learning outcomes can be produced at scale. Consciously and subconsciously, we often allow the conflation of potential (capacity) and performance to limit what learning outcomes we believe can be achieved by all learners. However, without entering the long and embattled debate about the existence and shape of the bell curve describing individual intellectual potential, we can turn this misconception on its head.

Rather than arguing about the range of human intellectual potential, the more important issue is the current use of the bell curve to describe the expected attainment of specific learning outcomes (i.e., educational performance) and the presumed correlation between the “potential” curve and the “performance” curve.

There is general acceptance of a broad distribution of performance in certain academic pursuits (less so when it comes to something like the alphabet, but very much so as subjects become more complex, like trigonometry and physics). We have become accustomed to the wide bell curve with grades F through A arrayed from left to right. Many are not only accustomed to this distribution, but comfortable with it because it validates the underlying belief that some individuals have the intellectual capacity and will to master certain topics and others do not. In math and science, as a country and culture, we are, unfortunately, exceptionally confident that there are “math and science people” and then there are others — often including ourselves among the “others” (aka the “neverbeens” — I’ve never been a “fill-in-the-blank person”). All of us should be discomforted by all of this, as it possibly represents the single most costly misunderstanding in the history of our country and potentially the world.

In most cases, the current performance bell curve could most reasonably be described as “the distribution of performance demonstrated by students on certain types of assessments after specific periods of time being taught in particular ways.” When described this way, it would seem absurd to assume that a student’s location on the curve is indicative of her true potential; but we and, more importantly, the students almost always say and believe that to be true. This has to change.

JS curve graph

Student achievement improves dramatically for students who receive one-on-one instruction over traditional classroom instruction — Bloom’s Two Sigma Problem.

More than three decades ago, Benjamin Bloom, acclaimed researcher and creator of Bloom’s Taxonomy, demonstrated that one-to-one tutoring produced a two-standard-deviation improvement over classroom instruction. If the U.S. school population improved by just one standard deviation, we would be the top-performing nation in the world; our bottom decile of students would perform at the level of our current top-quartile students. (Would that then qualify them as “math people”?) Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman was famously able to redesign his physics course to produce more than two standard deviations of average improvement across instructors, effectively doubling the percentage of students passing the course and seemingly supporting their belief that they are “science people.” Others have produced similar results in mathematics courses, often while significantly reducing the required in-class time (i.e., reducing cost).

Student achievement improves dramatically for students who receive one-on-one instruction over traditional classroom instruction — Bloom’s Two Sigma Problem.If we know these kinds of results are possible across student populations and various rigorous topics, then on what basis are we allowing our young people to be labeled as less than capable and, worse, believe themselves incapable of performing at the highest levels?

Two standard deviations would move average U.S. performance two times as far ahead of the world’s top-performing “nation,” Shanghai, as Shanghai is ahead of the U.S. today; and it would put our bottom decile students at the Shanghai average. The benefits in terms of global economic, political, and social leadership would be unequivocal; but, to date, our inability to affordably produce these kinds of outcomes — Bloom’s Two Sigma Problem — has perpetuated an educational model that wastes tremendous human potential and has allowed the U.S. to lose its position as an educational leader.

This is not an insurmountable barrier. It is the kind of challenge that America has used research, development, and systemic innovation to conquer time and again. If we believe the aforementioned learning outcomes are possible, we must simply be willing to build the infrastructure to do the same in education and training. If we are successful, there is no doubt we and our young people will “win the future.” So, we must ask ourselves: Are we willing to be fearless: take risks; be bold; and fail forward?


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Jim Shelton is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement.

Schools That Can

Shelton Visits Berea Clay

Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton talks with students during a stop at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky as part of the Department's back-to-school bus tour.

For each of the last three years, Secretary Duncan has started the school year with a bus tour visiting schools and communities across the country to find what’s working in education and to hear the concerns, insights, and lessons learned from students, teachers, principals, parents, and the communities supporting them. It’s always a welcome grounding in “real education” — the kind that children and families experience everyday — versus the “education system” policymakers and pundits love to caricature and debate.

This year, I participated more fully than I have in years past — visiting schools, grantees, education reformers, and advocates in California, Missouri, and Kentucky.

In California, I watched a Sequoia High School (Redwood City) student, who entered the school as an English Learner, introduce the music video he produced with his classmates on the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus to an audience of more than 500 attendees. Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, then shared anecdotes of individual students, whole classes, and entire schools achieving dramatic gains and fundamentally changing learning and teaching practices.

Shelton discussing eMints

Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton discussed eMINTS during a "Education Drives America" bus tour stop at the University of Missouri.

In Missouri, I visited the New Franklin School to see Investing in Innovation (i3) Validation grantee eMINTS at work. Teachers and students were using relevant and engaging project-based and personalized learning powered by technology to improve student engagement, effort, and outcomes. A class of self-directed 5th-grade teams pursued Web quests on American Indian civilizations. High school juniors and seniors completed self-paced accounting courses. Teachers spoke of being renewed by the approach and the new tools. Everyone used words like “ownership,” “empowered,” and “independence” to describe the shift in the school’s learning culture. All of this was especially exciting after hearing from school and system leaders working hard to implement the program despite the challenges of decreased funding, lack of technology infrastructure, and burdensome regulation.

In Kentucky, I visited Sayre School, a high-performing and well-resourced independent school focused on building great character as well as providing rigorous learning opportunities. The students showed extraordinary poise and confidence as we discussed the relative strengths of their program and the infusion of technology as a new, but increasingly ubiquitous, tool. This visit served as an excellent benchmark as I traveled to rural Kentucky to visit the i3 Development and Promise Neighborhoods (PN) Implementation grantee, Berea College, to see their work at Clay County High School (CCHS).

Clay County suffers from all of the ills often associated with Appalachia; but CCHS has leveraged the PN and i3 grants to substantially increase the number of AP classes offered and multiply the number of students taking AP classes and, most importantly, passing AP exams with a score of 3 or better. They’ve used the PN grant to create more comprehensive and coherent student supports that have begun to reverse the dropout trend and increase college going.  Teachers and students spoke eloquently about the impact these efforts have had, not only on their practices, but also on their belief systems.

One student in particular helped me synthesize everything that I had seen in the past two weeks. As I was ending my visit at CCHS with a student roundtable, I asked the students what impacts the programs had on the school and them. They spoke about the access to more AP courses, the heroic efforts of the new academic specialists to keep kids in school, the impact of grant-funded college visits, and the difference tiny amounts of resources made to teachers who cared but had nothing to work with. Then one standout student I had met earlier in the day, Rex, said:

I know I talked about the AP classes; but that’s not the most important thing.  And, I know I talked about the resources—ROTC students finally having real equipment after having used brooms for years—but that’s not the most important thing. CCHS used to be an I-can’t-school… Now, we are an I-can-school… I can take AP courses. I can go to college. I can do better than my parents.

Evidenced-based programs, technology, professional development, funding — I firmly believe all these are important; but in the end, nothing is more powerful than schools, teachers, and students that believe they can.

The question that motivates me is, what combinations of tools, resources, and know-how can make every school an I-can-school?

Jim Shelton is assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education

Click here to keep up with news and other developments of the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) by receiving email alerts about new posts on the OII news page

Panel Shows What’s Possible in Education Technology

Last Monday, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and committee member Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado co-sponsored a briefing on innovation in public education through the use of learning technologies. More than 50 Senate staff members came to hear from a panel I moderated that featured leaders in the ed tech field.

The panelists, Dr. Stephen Elliott (founding director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Arizona State University), Jennie Niles (founder of the DC-based E.L. Haynes Public Charter School), and Jeremy Roberts (director of technology for PBS Kids Interactive), all concurred that the promise of technology to transform education has fallen short of expectations for the past two to three decades. However, they also all agree that we are finally at a time where many factors are converging to overcome historic barriers: increasingly ubiquitous broadband, cheaper devices, digital content, cloud computing, big data, and generally higher levels of comfort with technology among the general population.

The panelists spoke compellingly about how their institutions are taking advantage of existing technology applications, products, and services to drive new ways of teaching and learning, whether inside elementary schools, college campuses or family rooms. For example:

  • PBS can use information as discreet as how long a student spends reading a passage or hovering over a wrong answer to determine what a student knows, what misconceptions he or she may have, and most importantly, what type of lesson might help that student learn best. With this information in hand, parents can make better-informed decisions about how to support their child’s learning based more and more on evidence rather than guess-work.
  • E.L. Haynes is leveraging technology to empower teachers and enable truly differentiated instruction. The school incubated a new online system for math instruction after discovering that there were very few learning resources that met their needs (i.e. aligned to standards, instructionally excellent, engaging and available anytime-anywhere). The system has been picked up by other schools across the country, demonstrating the potential for broad adoption of well-designed tools and resources. Haynes has also partnered in the development of a comprehensive web-based student information system able to track each student’s real time academic progress and other critical data. As a result of these efforts, teachers have more time to work directly with students and the information to target assistance where it is most needed.
  • Arizona State University (ASU), the nation’s largest public university, faced a convergence of funding cuts, a growing student body with significant developmental education needs, and pressure to retain and graduate more students. ASU brought together researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurs to solve these challenges and turned the university into a model testbed site for scalable technology solutions.   These partnerships produced a technology-enhanced developmental math course that significantly improved outcomes, as well as a monitoring tool (featured in a New York Times article last week) that tracks and supports each student’s progress towards graduation. ASU is now educating more students at a lower average cost per student and has raised its retention rate from 77% to 84%.

While these examples show the promise of existing technologies, they are also evidence of the largely untapped potential of technology to transform learning and improve outcomes.  Participants also discussed the role that the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED) could play in filling this critical gap and why the private market has failed to do so on its own.

An ARPA-ED would be modeled after DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which catalyzed the development of world-changing technologies such as the Internet and GPS. ARPA-ED would similarly focus on transformative research and development, pursuing projects such as digital tutors that are as effective as the best human tutors to support teachers in bridging the gap for every student; courses that improve the more students use them, and new ways to assess student progress that are as compelling and fun as video games.

As historic barriers fall and we attempt to accelerate the pace of improvement of our education system, rethinking the role of technology and leveraging new forms of R&D presents the opportunity to transform learning and teaching versus just “reforming” it. If we are successful, we will not only regain America’s leading position in educational performance and attainment, leap-frogging our global competitors; we will create new enterprises that push our nation to the forefront of a growing $5+ trillion sector.

Jim Shelton is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.  

Taking “Boring” Out of the Classroom

Image of Asst. Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton (ed. note: Asst. Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton was in Austin, Texas last Friday for the South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film, and interactive conference and appeared on the panel: “Asleep in the Classroom: A Wake Up Call from Tomorrow.”)

For too many of our students around the country, “boring” has become the adjective of choice to describe their experiences in the classroom.  Students have been locked down by the concept of seat time and locked out of the technological revolution that has transformed nearly every sector of American society, except for education.

To prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs and rapidly changing society, we must build a high quality and highly effective education system that takes advantage of everything we know from the learning sciences and every learning tool and opportunity available.  This is especially true given the “New Normal” of needing to do more with less. At the Department of Education we are committed to this pursuit, from articulating a path forward in our National Education Technology Plan to creating the required infrastructure such as the recently proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED). And with the help of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Plan, we’re working towards providing all students with a robust and affordable Internet that will provide the communications network of the future.

In an age of Facebook, Amazon.com, online collaboration and rapid technological change, the world of chalk and blackboards simply won’t meet the demands of today let alone tomorrow.  Technology has the potential to greatly enhance student engagement, increase personalized learning, enable students to earn credit and progress at their own pace, and equip teachers with the tools needed to differentiate instruction (i.e. diagnose student needs, interests, and learning preferences and adjust their teaching and content based on that diagnosis).  Technology can empower students of all ages to take control of their learning, and to find and pursue their passions – waking them up not only in class but to the many opportunities before them and their own potential.

Jim Shelton, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement