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April 29, 2013

Op-Ed: The New Innovation

By Michael Lombardo for The Huffington Post / Source

In his budget proposal last week, President Barack Obama suggested quintupling the School Turnaround Corps, a new joint initiative launched this spring by the Department of Education and Corporation for National and Community Service. The School Turnaround Corps (STC) has been the source of some concern on this site and elsewhere, due to its as-yet-unproven track record and its implicit direction that we experiment with new approaches to education in high poverty schools.

While I couldn’t agree more that all levels of government, as well as private philanthropy, should put the bulk of their money towards programs with evidence of impact and quantifiable results, I also think it’s critical that we continue to promote innovation. If we only invested in the things we know work, we’d end up with what Samuel Broder, former Director of the National Cancer Institute famously worried about: “the best iron lung in the world, but not a polio vaccine.”

What excites me most about the School Turnaround Corps (full disclosure: my organization, Reading Partners, receives funding from CNCS, though we are not competing for STC dollars) is that it addresses one of the greatest challenges facing education reform in the next five years: resource scarcity. Federal spending in education and national service are both very unlikely to increase in the current economic and political climate. There are some bright spots at the state level, but most kids will continue to be educated in a highly resource-constrained environment for many years ahead.

Most schools and reform organizations will need to do more with less, which is precisely the problem STC addresses. It acknowledges the tremendous human capital asset we have in community service and directs it in a thoughtful way as a support for struggling schools trying to turn themselves around. Too often volunteers are treated as a hood ornament in education, rather than the powerful force for change they can be.

STC also provides AmeriCorps with the opportunity to expand its enormous and severely underappreciated impact. Among the great education-focused AmeriCorps organizations out there changing lives every day with quantifiable results: Teach for America, City Year, Citizen Schools, and countless others. The odds are very slim that the House of Representatives, which zeroed out the AmeriCorps budget in both 2010 and 2011, will allow any increase in funding for national service. STC is right now one of the best chances we have at expanding the role — and the impact — of community volunteers in education.

I don’t expect STC to be an overnight success that can immediately compete on a student-by-student basis with more established programs, but I am heartened to see that the Department of Education and CNCS are willing to put this relatively small amount of money (less than 0.1 percent of all federal education spending) to find innovative new solutions to what is one of the toughest problems facing the education reform movement today.

Education, like art, is never ‘done.’ We have to constantly iterate and adapt, which means building a national culture of continuous improvement and innovation, responding to the challenges and opportunities of the day.


This op-ed appeared in The Huffington Post’s Impact blog. Michael Lombardo is the CEO of Reading Partners, a national education nonprofit that recruits and trains volunteers to provide one-on-one literacy tutoring to K-5 students at under-resourced schools.

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