Memo to those who work in schools and in the trenches of education: the U.S. Department of Education is serious about wanting to transform the country’s current monolithic, factory model-system into a student-centric one through the power of disruptive innovation.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said on many occasions that President Obama wants to encourage innovation: “All too often, the U.S. Department of Education operated more like a compliance machine, instead of an engine of innovation. The department typically focused on ensuring that formula funds reached their intended recipients in the proper fashion. It focused on inputs—not educational outcomes or equity. The Obama administration has sought to fundamentally shift the federal role, so that the Department is doing much more to support reform and innovation in states, districts, and local communities.”

Now you may not agree with the steps the Department and the Administration are taking to encourage innovation, but from my conversations with them, they are sincere in their desire to see this transformation occur.

A key challenge they face is that it’s not always so clear what the federal government can actually do to spark this change, as the country’s education system is really a state and local concern—federal dollars for example account for only 8 percent of K-12 education spending.

One key question, for example, is how to decouple today’s system from the weight of its seat-time legacy and move it to a competency-based system. This would be a huge step forward into escaping the prisoners of time dilemma, but nearly 20 years since the authoring of the report by that very name, the escape remains elusive.

Here is where all of us come in and where we can help the Department.

The existing rules and regulations that block some of these steps forward is not always so obvious. Oftentimes, rules in place around accountability, for example, are interpreted at the state level as being locked in time, when federal statute is in fact agnostic. The Department has limited visibility into how its regulations may affect real actions on the ground—if mere guidance from a third-party is needed to explain to states that they may do something they thought they could not, or if there needs to be real regulatory change.

To those who work in schools and districts and in other areas of the K-12 education system, send me a note or post a comment here or via Twitter on what regulations create difficulty in innovating toward a student-centric system that allows each child to realize her human potential. And get specific.

Saying “eliminate the No Child Left Behind” law won’t help; what’s needed instead is down to the line feedback, so that we can help to create the conditions for this innovation to flourish. It doesn’t need to nourish innovation explicitly, as the Department tried to do with its i3 initiative, but instead what would be really helpful is to point toward what is thwarting the right conditions.

One example of this is in higher education, where the Department of Education has recently tried to define the credit hour in three discreet ways in a specific regulation, which would lock the system further into a seat time regulation—you can read about it here. Helping to point out places like this and think through ways to move toward quality for students without locking the system further into its monolithic origins would be a big help now.

We have champions in the Department who want to hear from us and want the help. Send me your specific feedback, and I’ll be sure they get to hear it so that we can continue to make progress in the years ahead toward this transformation of the education system.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.