“We haven’t had a common yardstick. … As a country we’ve been very loose with this—50 different standards, 50 different goal posts, every state with [its] own measuring stick,” Duncan said. “ I think that lack of transparency has led to the acceptance of the status quo that is fundamentally harmful to children, harmful to states, and ultimately harmful to the country.”

He said common standards are the most critical factor for school innovation.

“I think that’s the game changer. I think when the history of education is written, this is going to be a big piece of the story. With a common measuring stick … we’ll be able to look across the country to see who’s moving the needle, and then take that to scale very rapidly,” Duncan said.

Technology also holds great potential for innovation in education, Duncan said—although he noted that technology has yet to transform education like it has other sectors.

“If we’re not using technology to engage students’ learning, I think we’re missing the boat now,” Duncan said, adding that by making assessments digital, schools can help teachers improve as well.

“Every single high-performing school I’ve visited uses data and formative assessment to drive instruction,” he said, explaining how technology can help drive school innovation. “This is taking great teachers and taking their craft to a different level, as they’re finally able to understand what students are actually comprehending, how to better differentiate instruction, how to do small groups. Great teachers live for this kind of feedback, and they’ve just never gotten it before.”

Duncan acknowledged that the federal Education Department (ED) has been part of the problem by not doing enough to seed school innovation. For years, ED has administered most of its grants by formula, he explained, adding: “Everybody got their tiny slice of the pie, and we perpetuated the status quo.”

Instead, ED “should be in the business of innovation,” he said. “We need to be in the business of trying to fund fundamental breakthroughs.”

That’s what new competitive grant projects such as Investing in Innovation (i3) and Promise Neighborhoods have been about, he said: funding public-private partnerships designed to change the status quo.

Stressing the importance of such public-private partnerships, Duncan called on companies to step up and partner with school districts to help spur innovation in education.