Panelists at a recent forum focused on how to encourage more innovation in education.

Innovation was a key theme of President Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 25, and it also was the theme of a recent forum in Washington, D.C., that explored how policy makers and education leaders can encourage more innovation in the nation’s schools.

Hosted by the Aspen Institute, the Education Innovation Forum kicked off Jan. 20 with Education Secretary Arne Duncan calling on states to implement the Common Core standards and integrate more technology into classrooms.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be as a country,” Duncan said. “The brainpower here, the innovation, the creativity [can help us] get not just incremental change, but … dramatically better outcomes for young people.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the United States raises questions about U.S. competitiveness in the global economy, and Duncan listed several facts that “compel us to act differently.”

For one thing, the high school dropout rate in the U.S. is around 25 percent, which translates into about a million students every year. “That’s economically unsustainable [and] morally unacceptable,” Duncan said. “There are no good jobs out there in a globally competitive economy for high school dropouts.”

He also cited the mediocre performance of U.S. students on a recent international exam, as well as the nation’s college attainment rate.

“A generation ago we led the world in college graduation rates, [and now] we’ve flat-lined,” he said. “While we’ve stagnated, nine other countries have passed us by. They’re out-educating us, they’re out-investing, they’re out-innovating, and they’re going to out-compete us and continue to out-compete us.”

Duncan said common standards are necessary to accurately compare schools across the nation.

“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.

“I’m convinced the answers are out there,” he said. “If we can just take to scale what we know is working, millions more children would benefit.”

In a separate panel discussion later in the day, John Katzman, chief executive officer of 2tor Inc., took issue with the idea of finding what works and replicating it everywhere.

“We don’t do that in any other sector,” he said. “We think in terms of, let’s create a system that evolves.”

Marguerite Kling, a social studies teacher at Nature Coast Technical High School in Brooksville, Fla., revealed how her students define innovation in education: as student-centered learning. One of Kling’s former students said the way she was taught in most of her high school classes “did not adequately prepare me for college,” because she never learned how to take ownership of her own learning.

Paul Pastorek, superintendent of education for the state of Louisiana, said policy makers often think of school innovation in terms of classrooms, when they should be thinking in terms of entire systems.

Too often, he said, systems get in the way of school innovation. He explained that administrators from many of the top-achieving high-poverty schools in his state have told him their key to success is that they “fly under the radar”—that is, they don’t listen to what the district says and do their own thing instead.

Katzman agreed that school districts weren’t designed to be innovative; they have too many competing factions, all with different agendas. The challenge, he said, is: “How do you subvert the school district model in sort of subtle ways” to foster innovation in education?

Jean Desravines, incoming CEO of New Leaders for New Schools, said policy makers need to create incentives for entire systems to change, such as what the federal Race to the Top grant program has done for states.

Pastorek said he often hears from many school leaders that they don’t have time to be innovative, because they’re too busy focusing on getting students to pass high-stakes tests.

“I do think testing can stifle innovation in the classroom,” he said, if it’s approached from a position of fear. But if teachers and school leaders focus on rigorous teaching, and on using data to help them improve, then “the testing should take care of itself.”

(With additional reporting from Editor Dennis Pierce)