Scaling High School Innovation is Broken

Yesterday I was interviewed by documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch, who most notably released “Bully” in 2011. Lee has been hired by the XQ America Superschools project, an initiative funded by Laurene Powell Jobs (yes, that Jobs). XQ will be awarding $50 million to five schools, sometime in August, and Iowa BIG is in the running along with many other great schools.

New York filmmaker Lee Hirsch (far right) and his crew flew in at 1am Monday morning and were filming the Humans of CR art installation at Green Square Park by 9:30 that morning.

Lee asked me what we’d do with $10 million, and I explained how we have a proven, scalable model, that only requires funding to scale. I told him that every kid in Iowa deserves to do something real before leaving high school. But I also had to elaborate on why so many students are in, what appears to be, a closed-loop proposition. It’s because scaling responsive, living/breathing educational innovation nationwide is fundamentally broken.
I’m about to use some words that aren’t typically used in the realm of public education, which is part of the problem. If much of the following language and associated concepts are foreign to you, that’s an indicator of the problem…
In the entrepreneurial world, and the real world in general (not government/schools), the concept of rapidly funding and scaling successful practices exists. For example, if I demonstrate a successful Minimal Viable Product (MVP) that creates revenue, the likelihood of then rapidly raising funds from investors increases significantly. Why? Because the investor thinks they’re going to make money off the company from which they purchased equity. Capitalism gets results through this tried-and-true mechanism. When you remove capitalistic forces, innovation often grinds to a halt.

Graduating senior George Elosais (right) explains aquaponics to Lee Hirsch (white shirt) and his film team.

The question remains, “How do we scale the necessary wholesale reinvention of public education wherein the only short-term winners are kids?”. Nobody will make money from scaling such innovation, therefore, no venture capitalists or angel investors will invest in exchange for shares in public education, nor are they permitted to.
In the public education realm, deploying rapid and adequate funding mechanisms for scaling real innovation comes nearly exclusively from wealthy education-focused foundations (XQ America, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, etc). We’ve applied for, and hope to receive various grants. Note that I didn’t say that rapid and sizable public education innovation funding currently comes from states, cities, or local school districts. My theory is as follows:  these government entities don’t believe the bang-for-the-buck is there, or at least in a timely fashion. Back in August I elaborated on Public Education’s R&D Dilemma and gave a local example.
We’re wrapping-up year three of Iowa BIG, with ample evidence of amazing outcomes from our complete overhaul of high school education, yet we exist on funding for only 110 part-time students this semester. Our pool of fulltime public high school students in the region is about 5,000, putting us at about a 2% market saturation …after three years in. That doesn’t even count the time spent on the year-long “Back to School” research project that began in 2012.
Every high school kid deserves to do something real before they graduate. At this pace, we’re looking at 2050 before this happens in Iowa. Short of our state and community entities aggressively investing in Research, Innovation, and Design for public education, I don’t see any remedy in sight…short of multimillion dollar national grant competitions.
Troy Miller is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for Iowa BIG. Follow him @IowaBIG.