Recently, the Christensen Institute’s cofounder, Michael B. Horn, along with Summit Public Schools founder Diane Tavenner, interviewed school finance expert Marguerite Roza on their Class Disrupted podcast. Their topic: the biggest federal investment in K–12 public education in our country’s history. 

There’s a good reason why all that funding is needed, and why it’s been made available to public schools on such flexible terms. Some districts will use it to shore up state funding that dried up last year due to falling revenue during the pandemic. Others need it to coordinate care and accelerate learning after a year when schools struggled to reach and support many students. Still others require it to support safe school reopening, with effective ventilation and protocols in place. 

But with a one-time windfall this big, federal funding should help generate sustainable solutions to persistent problems, not just put Band-Aids on current ones. School system leaders who share this philosophy can get started with a few insights from innovation theory:

1. Make investment decisions based on circumstances, not what works on average. 

In education, there’s a tricky tension between the need to prove that an approach works before scaling it, and the reality that “best practices” proven in one context will not reliably work in others. (Case in point: some teachers swear by the positive impacts of a cameras-on policy for online learning; others argue fervently that such policies put students at risk.)

Districts taking in large amounts of federal funding may be tempted to adopt “proven” solutions quickly, then roll them out across the entire district. Before doing so, however, they should ensure that those solutions produce equitable results (meaning demonstrated impacts especially for students facing the highest barriers, not just average results across all students) in circumstances similar to their own. The problem is, especially with larger and more diverse districts, those circumstances may differ substantially across school communities. 

One way forward? Roza suggested that districts, which receive the vast majority of federal funding, could reallocate much of that budget directly to schools. Doing so would allow principals and school teams to lead decision-making in closer partnership with teachers and families, with deeper understanding of the unique circumstances and stakeholders in their schools.

2. Rather than raising recurring staff costs, fund innovation teams that are temporary by design.

Using the new federal dollars to fund new, recurring costs, like permanent raises or subscription-based materials, is risky because the recovery money is temporary. But because the most expensive part of innovation is the early phase, when additional people and resources are needed to figure out a new solution to a problem, recovery dollars could be a huge opportunity.

Education leaders should strongly consider using federal funding to form temporary innovation teams, which are new units made up of individuals from multiple departments or areas of expertise, like subject area teachers, specialists, administrators, parents, and students. When the problem being solved requires better coordination between existing departments, like organizing school-family communications, lightweight teams can be funded to spearhead that coordination until a solution is developed and normalized. When the problem being solved requires a whole new way of doing things, like offering a permanent hybrid learning option, funding heavyweight teams can allow people with different backgrounds and schools of experience to collaborate intensely to design, prototype, and test new ways of doing things. Then, once new processes are up and running smoothly, these teams can deliberately sunset as planned—right around the deadline for recovery spending.

3. Before staffing up, invest in existing human resources—including students.

In her recent interview, Roza said something that stuck with me: “The idea that the only way to help students is to hire people to help students is a limiting way to think about this money.” In other words, don’t ignore what students, families, and other community members can offer as stakeholders to a school’s mission. (That’s true even in normal, not-so-flush-with-cash times.)

Here’s one simple way to do it: Pay students to help solve problems that affect them directly. That might take the form of internships that engage students in research and planning efforts, youth-adult partnerships that create structures for shared responsibility in school reform and redesign, or peer-to-peer models for student support services that scale more readily than those relying exclusively on professional staff. (On the podcast, Roza noted that in the philanthropic sector this approach is sometimes called “co-production,” where service delivery staff work directly with users to achieve a collective outcome.)

Roza also floated another option: pay students and families to participate in the recovery efforts. She said that such a move is unconventional, but possible with these dollars, and could look like compensating students for attending online summer tutoring sessions courses or making investments into students’ futures through college and career pathway funds. 

4. Use flexible state funding to set up infrastructure for scaling innovation.

As exciting as it is to imagine districts investing directly in efforts to reimagine “normal” over the next few years, Roza pointed out that it’s not always politically easy for them to do so. Immediate needs, like basic services, internet access, COVID testing, and math and reading proficiency, require and deserve funding from districts’ budgets. Allocating large sums to innovation—rather than immediate relief or recovery efforts—could prompt a backlash in some communities, especially if these investments are understood as a “nice to have” rather than a critical path to solving these problems. Plus, not every district should have to solve every problem alone. 

This is, naturally, where the role of state agencies can play a critical role. State agencies can provide both funding and infrastructure for developing and scaling innovative approaches like competency-based education or restorative justice. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, for example, is investing in a statewide effort to identify, assess, share, and then scale effective practices across the state.

5. Pause. Take a breath. Make a plan—but not a conventional one.

One of the most valuable points in the podcast interview is this: despite the continued pressure to address a national emergency at high speed, not everything has to be figured out right away. To get the most out of recovery funding, education leaders should feel able to pause, take a breath, consider what needs to be done—and then make a plan to do it.

The thing is, the plan for a new way forward won’t look like a typical district strategic plan. Conventional planning operates on the premise that it’s possible to extrapolate future results from a well-understood and predictable platform of past experience. But in unknown, uncertain, and evolving circumstances, conventional approaches to planning just won’t work because knowledge is scarce and uncertainty is high. Instead, educators must make do with assumptions about the possible futures on which their current decisions are based. 

Fortunately, that doesn’t have to mean defaulting to the Wild West. A different approach to planning, called discovery-driven planning, is in wide use by start-ups and new ventures as a way to be systematic about planning when little is known and much is assumed. The approach imposes disciplines different from, but no less precise than, the disciplines used in conventional planning.

6. ___

Inspired by Michael Trucano’s common practice on his World Bank EduTech blog, I’m leaving this sixth principle blank because these ideas are necessarily incomplete. No finite set of guidelines will crack the code on how to direct this windfall of federal funding towards solving longstanding, systemic problems. What strategies are you seeing to direct federal funding to sustainable, innovative solutions? Leave us a note in the comments section!


  • Chelsea Waite
    Chelsea Waite