Regional Partnerships Emerging to Support K-12 Innovation

Associate Editor


Businesses, nonprofits, colleges and community organizations are banding together with K-12 schools to form regional partnerships with the goal of helping schools overcome technology challenges and promote innovation, team efforts that were highlighted here this week at a gathering of industry, education, and foundation leaders.

Seven new cities or regions where such groups are actively forming have been identified since March by the nonprofit Digital Promise, which organized the meeting of about 130 people. (See map below.) The Digital Promise Education Innovation Clusters Convening was held Tuesday and Wednesday, hosted by LEAP Innovations and 1871, at the latter’s workspace where technology developers collaborate in the Windy City. 

For education collaborators, the urgency to meet and learn from one another is being driven by students’ needs, coupled with the ed-tech choices educators will be making over the next two years as their schools reach unprecedented levels of connectivity, said Richard Culatta, the director of the office of education technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

“We have to move fast,” Culatta told the audience.

The risk of not coordinating efforts to help K-12 schools is that, with the infusion of $8 billion to connect schools to broadband, students “will be sitting in classes with high-speed Wi-Fi” and decisions about how to make the most of that connectivity will be made without data-driven research. Culatta urged organizations to act quickly to gather information about what works in terms of technology-based instruction, and get those findings to school decisionmakers.

Not all of the discussion focused exclusively on improving K-12 systems through teachers’ use of ed tech. Among the many other topics tackled during the meeting:

  • How can local and state governments become partners in the work of education innovation?
  • When is it time to put an end to an unproductive partnership in a collaborative group of partners?
  • What kinds of research are necessary to verify the value of work done in these partnerships, and who will pay for it?
  • How can diverse organizations fully understand one another, when each has its own lexicon for the work it does? 

Clusters of Innovation: A Nationwide Map

As of March, 14 U.S. cities or regions had created “clusters” of organizations trying to promote innovation in education, according to Steven Hodas, who is leading this initiative for Digital Promise. That number increased by more than 50 percent in five months, as more organizations outside of schools are showing an interest in helping them.

The new cities, and organizations that are supporting their education innovation efforts, are shown below on an interactive map developed by Education Week  that is based on Digital Promise data:

Now, work is underway in 21 U.S. cities or regions, and five other countries: Australia, Canada, England, France, and Israel. With the Education Department as a partner in this week’s event, Culatta said that for the first time he received calls from people in other countries asking how they could get an invitation to it. This is the third year such a gathering has been held, since an original meeting in Philadelphia two years ago with about 30 people.

New Interactive Playbook: Make Your Own Game Plan

Pittsburgh, where the largest and most established education innovation cluster operates, was the site of last year’s meeting, and the topic of conversations this year about lessons learned.

The Sprout Fund, a nonprofit organizer of Pittsburgh’s 200 participating groups, announced Wednesday the newest version of the Remake Learning Playbook, an online tool that offers resources to help organizations make their own game plan to remake learning. Last year, my colleague Ben Herold wrote an in-depth article about how the Pittsburgh cluster formed and has grown.

Most attending the meeting here in Chicago wanted to share stories from smaller-scale partnership activity that they are hoping to scale up, and look for the game plans to do so.

Adam Fried, superintendent of the Harrington Park, N.J. schoolsagreed to evaluate three ed-tech companies’ products as part of his district’s ongoing research-based work. The trials were a success, he said, and now he’s ready for more. “We want to evolve this process so this cluster will grow and change,” he said. Next week, he will be meeting with New Jersey education department officials to share his experiences and encourage the expansion of partnership initiatives in other districts.

In rural southeast Kentucky, another group is forming around the work of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative. Ron Daley, strategic partnership lead for the cooperative, and Paul Green, Appalachian Renaissance Initiative leader, in Hazard, Ky., described their challenges, including the fact that many parents won’t encourage college attendance, because they worry that their children will move out of the area after getting a degree.

Green said the state department of education expressed an interest in creating career pathways, but it wasn’t a simple request. “Almost every county in Southeast Kentucky has no industry,” he said. “For us, it’s more complicated than saying, ‘We’re going to partner with industry.'”

Instead, organizers started creating their own entities, including the Appalachian Innovations Collaborative, a grassroots organization focused on K-12 and post-secondary education, as well as a leadership-focused organization and a technology institute. “I’m extremely passionate about working from a system of abundance rather than deficit. Our focus is on the strengths we have to make change in our region,” he told attendees.

In addition to the New Jersey and Southeast Kentucky initiatives, other areas where partnership clusters are forming include Austin; Kansas City, Mo.; Phoenix, San Diego; and Seattle.

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2 thoughts on “Regional Partnerships Emerging to Support K-12 Innovation

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