Digital Promise to Create Network of Education Innovation Clusters

Associate Editor

Education innovation clusters are emerging or growing in cities and regions around the world, and Digital Promise announced Friday that it is designing a network that will share lessons learned in these hubs with schools in the United States and abroad.

An “education innovation cluster” is a way that people in a city or region pool their talents, perspectives, and assets to tackle challenges that are facing schools, according to Steven Hodas, who is leading the work for Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to improving education through technology and research. Besides the U.S.-based clusters, five other countries have active centers for educational innovation. (See the interactive map below, with descriptions of geographic clusters.)

Clusters tend to differ based on the needs of schools in a given area, and the organizations that support them. Usually, a cluster includes researchers, ed-tech companies, universities, investors, developers, and foundations or nonprofits, although not all are needed to start or sustain a cluster, and they can be launched without much initial funding.

They can originate with a clear ed-tech focus, as has happened in Boston with LearnLaunch and Baltimore with EdTech Maryland; in universities’ graduate schools of education, like the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia; or they can start with schools as the driving force, as is happening in Nashville, where the school district is working with Alignment Nashville, which has created a framework for developing community schools.

“It’s not necessary for the district to be the convener for teachers, schools, and students to benefit,” said Hodas, who is a practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. But when a district is the convener, it adds “political capital,” Hodas said, signaling from top leadership that addressing the district’s challenges in innovative ways is a high priority.

How Clusters Fuel Improvement

“The point of all this is to help school leaders make better decisions about the tools they’re bringing into the classrooms,” said Katrina Stevens, the senior advisor for educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, who will be working with Hodas as he studies the clusters.

Hodas expanded on that concept. “The idea is to amplify and coordinate the activities of different entities with the eye to come up with better tools, better policies, and better practices,” he said.

“The best clusters we’ve seen are where all the community partners are working together to support the teaching and learning that’s happening in districts,” said Sara Schapiro, the director of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of 57 districts. Based on the knowledge-sharing that occurs in the league, Digital Promise became interested in expanding its understanding of how clusters are working in cities, so the findings can be disseminated to a wider audience, and similar initiatives to support schools can be launched elsewhere.

The education department’s involvement is in response to “hearing a strong need from the field for some help in building better tools and apps, and figuring out what’s working,” said Richard Culatta, the director of the office of education techology at the U.S. Department of Education, which has its own definition of education innovation clusters.

Sharing Innovative Ideas

Last August, Digital Promise convened the 14 new or emerging clusters for a meeting in Pittsburgh, which is considered home to one of the most mature clusters, Schapiro said. Pittsburgh’s cluster includes about 200 organizations coordinated by the Sprout Fund, a nonprofit that has invested about $1.3 million in 100 innovative learning projects and programs since 2009. Cathy Lewis Long, the fund’s founding executive director, said more than 50 school districts take part in the cluster’s activities. (See Education Week’s story about how Pittsburgh organizations are working together to support innovation in education.) 

“A lot of people said, ‘What’s happening? What’s in the water there?'” joked Long. “There’s been so much transformation” in the area’s school systems.

Two of them—the rural South Fayette Township district in McDonald, Pa., and the suburban Elizabeth Forward district in Allegheny County, Pa.—have become widely known for trying innovations within the cluster and sharing their findings with districts there, across the United States, and around the world.

For instance, a building for grades 3-5 that recently opened in the 3,000-student South Fayette district has been specifically designed with curriculum and innovation in mind—a first floor with an environmental curriculum focus for 3rd graders, a second floor highlighting earth and space for 4th graders, and a third floor with a dedicated robotics area for 5th graders, said Bille Pearce Rondinelli, the superintendent of the South Fayette schools. That’s just one way this predominantly farming community is preparing its students for college and careers.

To Bart Rocco, the superintendent of the 2,700-student Elizabeth Forward schools since 2009, innovation became an imperative when he realized students needed to be engaged in learning in different ways. “We were losing some kids as dropouts, and losing others that enrolled in cyber charters,” he said. 

A grant to establish a “gaming academy” with the help of Carnegie Mellon Univeristy was the beginning of the quest to move technology forward in schools. Elizabeth Forward agreed to pilot programs, such as eSpark’s iPad app, which school officials say helped boost scores for kindergarteners, and first and second grade special education/Title I students an average of 25 percentile points in reading and math after a semester. The district also redesigned the high school media center to feature recording studios, performance space, mobile devices, and a coffee shop. 

“We wanted to create an environment to make school ‘cool’ again,” said Rocco, “and provide a structure where they could think about their future.” 

Speeding Up Development

Culatta said “connecting the dots” among clusters can help scale “what works” much faster. “If you’re building a tool or an app and your whole team is three people, and you’re doing this on the side while you’re teaching or whatever, the idea of running a three-year random control study doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We need to show how that can be accelerated.”

Stevens said having a connected cluster structure could be instrumental in developing a methodology so trials could be conducted in different parts of the country, providing “data that has some rigor to it, so the information will be meaningful.”

Companies that work with clusters might find it easier to pilot their products with participating schools, but Hodas cautioned that “it would be a mistake for a company to look at this just as an opportunity to pilot.” 

“For all these participants, the question they need to ask is not just, ‘What can I get out of it,’ but also, ‘What can I learn?,'” Hodas said.

Schapiro said an eventual outcome of Hodas’ work will be the creation of a “playbook” that will explain the workings of clusters, and another convening of all the clusters and interested parties.

“We don’t want to be prescriptive, that it has to be this type of community partner that’s coordinating a cluster,” she said. What is important is that “a school district remains at the center of what they’re doing, and that all activities center on driving teaching and learning.”

Digital Promise’s work to study the clusters is being underwritten by the Grable Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children.

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Map Credit: Digital Promise and Education Week

One thought on “Digital Promise to Create Network of Education Innovation Clusters

  1. Innovation clusters sound like a great way to help school systems improve student performance. It is refreshing that the clusters this article mentioned seemed to be focused on getting students excited about learning and not preparing them for standardized tests. The changes the schools in the Pittsburgh area made all have “fun” elements to them, this is important in getting students to take charge of their own education. They also incorporate current technology in an educational manner. Using current technology that some students may not regularly have access to will benefit students greatly. Tech experience is vital to students in the world outside of school; it can be one of the most important skills they have to help them find a job. It can also empower the students because they may already have some skills in technology and by showing them how to use those effectively they will build confidence in themselves. Innovation clusters can help support teachers in many ways. For example they help take the guesswork out of choosing new programs or strategies to use. By providing teachers with the real experiences of other teachers and connecting them to researchers they can feel confident that they are using beneficial strategies. In this way they are much like professional learning communities however innovation clusters tackle some of the issues that have risen among PLCs. For example in Stephen Kotok’s piece “Can professional learning communities prosper without treating teachers as professionals?” the idea that PLCs may become overly standardized leading to teachers feeling like even less of an autonomous professional is stated. But by developing an innovation cluster in that community the teacher would be connected to other professionals and supported in a way that boosts their intelligence instead of degrading it.

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