Innovate to Educate

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

President Obama recently announced that the U.S. government is committed to restoring the nation's leadership in educating children in math and science, and launched a new “Educate to Innovate” campaign. The campaign will bring together teachers, parents, businesses and the media to promote math and science learning. The effort promises to test and launch new ideas to improve math and science education outcomes, and most importantly, our children’s interest in these fields as platforms to tackle many pressing challenges. While the campaign aims at encouraging students to engage in innovation, will it foster innovation among education providers themselves?

The campaign is definitively good news and is wider than previous efforts. We have long known about the “gathering storm” in education. Among high school graduates, only 17 percent are considered proficient in mathematics, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Moreover, as Obama pointed out, American students rank 21st in science and 25th in math compared with students around the world, putting the U.S. at a disadvantage on vital issues such as medicine, energy and security. Not surprisingly, only one in 20 U.S. college students major in engineering, much lower than other developed countries. Businesses bear part of the costs of these inefficiencies, as CEOs told the Wall Street Journal, and they are eager to invest in the Educate to Innovate campaign. So far, the private sector has committed $260 million to the campaign, and corporate giants, such as Intel, Xerox, Kodak and Time Warner Cable, have signed on.

However, there seems to be something missing in this campaign: improving the public school structure by infusing entrepreneurship and innovation. Entrepreneurship has been absent in America’s K-12 system, and this has a lot do with the dismal measures of performance in math and science education. The absence of entrepreneurial incentives in the system of K-12 public education leads to few innovations in teaching and curricula. While innovators can be found in selected public school districts, virtually all of them operate as top-down hierarchies, which inhibit teacher creativity. There are a hundred different approaches to education available, but these are not widely utilized. For instance, charter schools which are responding to community demands face regulation barriers (e.g., limits to the number of charters schools in a district) and funding imbalances vis-à-vis other public schools.

The campaign is spurring innovative approaches mostly outside the school system. Various organizations and businesses are launching cool, new ways of learning. For example, the foundation of Jack D. Hidary, an entrepreneur in finance and technology, worked with the National Science Teachers Association, the MacArthur Foundation and the American Chemical Society to create a Web site, nationallabday.org, which matches scientists willing to volunteer their time and teachers describing what projects they hope to incorporate into their classes. Another web site, connectamillionminds.com, set up by Time Warner Cable, provides a searchable directory of local science activities.

If we want to create successful ventures and spur innovation in the economy, we need to bring entrepreneurial education into the mainstream of teaching and learning. In order to do so, we should promote the design of new approaches to imparting twenty-first century skills and knowledge. More attention should be placed on improving the pipeline of entrepreneurial people entering the education field. Only by allowing educators to be innovative can we hope to impart those skills among students. 

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Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

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