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The 180 Podcast Jan 29, 2020

The 180 Podcast: Jim Shelton

Jim Shelton: Education Innovation: Improving Opportunity, Equity and Outcomes

Mention innovation in America, and what comes to mind? Silicon Valley? NASA? Tech firms? Not for Jim Shelton. He thinks: education. In fact, he wonders: Why, as we learn more about the science of learning and development, shouldn’t education – like, say, the military – have a full research and development infrastructure?

That thinking has driven Shelton – in the private sector, nonprofits and government – on a singular path: Innovating our approach to learning, teaching and educating, and using that innovation to create more opportunity, greater equity, and of course, better student outcomes.

Shelton is Chief Investment and Impact Officer at Blue Meridian Partners. He previously served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama – a role he took only after overseeing the Office of Innovation, which included managing the government’s Investing in Innovation Fund. Before joining the administration, Shelton drove education innovation in various roles, including as Program Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After leaving, he continued his push, serving as President of Education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: I’m Chris Riback. This is The 180, our podcast that explores how to transform 21st century education, how to turn it around using 21st century science.

Mention innovation in America, and what comes to mind? Silicon Valley? NASA? Tech firms? Not for Jim Shelton. He thinks: Education. In fact, he wonders: Why, as we learn more about the science of learning and development, shouldn’t education – like, say, the military – have a full research and development infrastructure?

That thinking has driven Shelton – in the private sector, non-profits and government – on a singular path: Innovating our approach to learning, teaching and educating, and using that innovation to create more opportunity, greater equity, and of course, better student outcomes.

Some background: Jim served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama – a role he took only after overseeing the Office of Innovation, which included managing the government’s Investing in Innovation Fund. Before joining the administration, Jim drove education innovation in various roles, including as Program Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After leaving, he continued his push, serving as President of Education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

So what does education innovation look like – and how can it take inputs from science and elsewhere to redefine 21st century education? Here’s my conversation with Jim Shelton

Chris Riback: Jim, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Jim Shelton: Glad to do it. Looking forward to it.

Chris Riback: To understand this conversation, I think it’s particularly important to understand what brought you to this point, because you’ve sat at the intersection of public and private initiatives all focused on innovation in education. How did you navigate that path?

Jim Shelton: In the very beginning, I mean literally of my life, in third-grade, I remember wanting to be in education. Because it became apparent to me that the education I was getting was very different than the education some of my friends were getting. And I knew that they were at least as smart, if not smarter, than I was. And so something was wrong with the system. I didn’t think about it that way, but something was wrong that they were not getting the kind of education I was getting.

Chris Riback: What were you getting versus what they were getting?

Jim Shelton: Well, it was a very specific incident. I was at my friend’s house, who was also in third-grade, and I was helping his brother, who was in the sixth grade, with his homework.

Chris Riback: Wow.

Jim Shelton: And I could just tell him that I knew him, I knew how much respect I had for him, and yet academically, it was clear he was not getting the same thing I was getting.

Chris Riback: And then take me from there.

Jim Shelton: So then I stayed involved, kind of peripherally in education, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because my mom told me I needed to go and make money, instead of going directly in education. And I started off as a computer and a technology guy – developing computer systems. And that gave me a certain lens on the world and the possibilities of technology changing things.

I tended to lean towards science and math, and ultimately, obviously, to computer science. But I kept looking at the world through the lens of both the inequities around education, and other societal inequalities, and the work I was doing in systems and in technology and innovation. Even when I went to graduate school, I went to graduate school for both business and education at the same time and realized that the kinds of tools and resources for transforming the business landscape that were commonplace were not even talked about in the context of my training for education.

I also recognized that what I thought I was going to get, in terms of a fundamental underpinning in how people learn and how that translates into the practices that we have in classrooms, that that didn’t seem to be a part of the education that I was getting either.

And as I went on in my career, I learned that lots of people saw as very separate the world of education from the world of the science of learning and its underpinnings. So I, through a whole variety of experiences, tried to design schools and school systems, and work with schools and school systems, to get closer and closer to understanding what are the range of things that influence a student’s outcomes in the classroom and outside.

What do we know about what actually supports them, and gets in their way? And what does the R and D infrastructure of the country look like, and how does it support it? And I had the opportunity to do that both as someone who tried to open and run schools, as someone who worked with schools and school systems, as someone who worked for a philanthropist who was investing in schools, on the government side of things. As, first, head of the Office of Innovation and then Deputy Secretary. And I’ve had the opportunity to do it in K-12 and in Higher Ed. And, in all of those contexts, I’ve been able to see a range of challenges and problems, and the potential, for new and great solutions.

Chris Riback: How different is it driving change from inside versus outside government? You’ve done both.

Jim Shelton: It’s incredibly different. I think more important than the differences, though, is the ways that they need each other. Government can create context and provide funding and resources and capacity at a scale that no private sector entity can do. The responsibility for quality and universality and reach is ultimately a governmental responsibility. The funding of research and R and D at the deepest levels in the United States has always been led primarily by government.

People think that this is unique to the social sector. It’s true in every sector. If you look through the major breakthroughs in the biological sciences, and even in the technical sciences and engineering, a lot of the advances that we are working on today were paid for through NIH and DARPA and other agencies. And there just has never been that kind of investment in the education space and the sciences in the education space. But government’s role is fundamental to the innovation that the private sector, then, is able to pick up and take and run with. And in the private sector you have the opportunity to make change in a variety of different ways.

And I forgot to mention one of the really important things that government does. Government creates the context for, and incentives for, how everyone else behaves, right? They set up the accountability systems. They set up the systems by which you can be paid and have resources flow into your organization. And they set up the consequences that can fall upon you if you misbehave. And all of those incentives are actually really important to how private actors perform as well. On the private actors side, you have, typically, structures that are not as democratic, which means that they can move nimbly. Maybe not engage as many stakeholders, but they can move more quickly. They can take more risk, because they don’t have political considerations. And they have natural incentives, in most cases, for sustainability and scale. That’s especially true on the for-profit side, but more and more it’s true on the nonprofit side as well, because there’s not an unlimited amount of philanthropic capital.

And so, when you look at the world from these two different, or two or three different perspectives, you quickly realize that each has a very specific role to play. That they need to learn from each other, and work together, and not respond to the caricatures of what they think each other wants.

Chris Riback: So I want to follow up on both of those sides – on the governmental side and the role of R and D and where has it been and on the nonprofit or in private sectors that you’ve worked in, some of the efforts that philanthropists have made, and so on. But I think it’ll be helpful to just confirm a definition from your point of view, because we’re talking about innovation. What does innovation mean when it comes to education?

Jim Shelton: Chris, I’m really glad you asked, because there are so many different definitions of innovation floating around out there. And I did a bunch of work when I first had a job with “innovation” in the title to decide which one was most important, and it was in the context of education. And what I realized is, that there are two dimensions of innovation that are really important for something to be, what I would call truly innovative. One is that the thing, whatever it is, needs to produce sets of outcomes, have impact, that are significantly better than the status quo. And the second is that it actually needs to reach a large percentage of the target population over time.

Chris Riback: And be able to scale, I assume. Does that incorporate scale?

Jim Shelton: That is exactly what that means. It means to be able to scale, to reach those people. Right? And so it’s impact and scale. And the reason I say that is, there are lots of inventions, things that show in isolated incidences great potential, and actually even great results, in isolated environments. But… and those are really important, because they do change our sense of the possibilities.

But what we need are things that actually change millions and millions of people’s lives. And innovation is at that intersection of impact and scale. When you think about the most innovative organizations and companies in the world, you think about things that have changed the way we live as humans, and even what our expectations are, and they didn’t happen because they did something really neat in one isolated environment. They did something that not only was precedent setting, and did it in a way that allowed broad cross sections of the world to benefit from it. And they set a new level of expectation of what was possible. That’s a big deal, and that’s what innovation is.

Chris Riback: Is there no such thing as too big of a bite to chew?

Jim Shelton: I think in the end, if our goal is to have a universal access to the highest quality education we provide, ultimately we have to assume we’re trying to bite the biggest apple that there is. The question is where do you start, and how do you actually learn as you go, so that you have the benefit of winding up where you aspire to be, not being crushed under the weight of what you tried to bite off?

And that’s a tricky, tricky thing to do. We’re not particularly good at it, and we need to learn how to get better at it. But, you know, the good news is that we are getting better and better at knowing how to learn at scale, as well as how to help things that work go to scale.

Chris Riback: So let me follow up on some of what you were discussing earlier regarding the role of government, the investment in R and D in government, some of the roles of philanthropists, and so on. To begin, where is the DARPA of education? Why, when science impacts all sorts of areas that we might not even imagine it necessarily impacting, agriculture comes to mind, as at first glance you might not imagine it, but then obviously, of course science matters in agriculture. Well, the same is true in education, and yet something, it seems, over time has gotten lost in translation. Why has the science of education historically not been recognized in the governmental side as a place for research?

Jim Shelton: I think there are probably two or three really important reasons. I think one, the separation of education and the science of learning, I think, is one really fundamental one, that somewhere, someone decided that education was about pedagogy and what happens in classrooms. And that in order to figure out what to do there, you really didn’t need to look very much at what the science said about how humans learn.

And I’m not sure where that history emerged from, but what I am clear is that there are often many, many conversations. In fact, most of our schools of education are very separate and distinct from the departments of cognitive science and learning science and neuroscience, all of which we now know have deep impacts on whether you’re able to learn, and what strategies are going to be most effective to teach. So that’s the first.

The second is that, I think that one of the things that has helped many of the markets, many of the sectors, develop strong R and D segments, developed the DARPAs, developed the NIHs, is that there was a broad agreement about what outcomes you were shooting for. And it was also an industry that formed that knew how to take advantage of new science and new technologies to their benefit. And my most cynical self says those industries knew how to hire lobbyists to get more funding for R and D for their sectors. That’s a whole other story.

Chris Riback: That’s another story.

Jim Shelton: But, what I will say is that translation of learning science into practical tools and products, that then there was demand for among educators, it hasn’t happened well. And so the lack of translation, and the lack of co-design and co-development, is the second thing.

And then the third thing I would say is that there have been some experts to do the work of using rigorous science, to develop tools and products and resources, but they’ve been typically under-resourced, and they often have neglected what I’ll call a more user-centered design, or even design overall, so that they were sometimes a little, sometimes a lot clunky, sometimes a little and a lot impractical for the classroom, and often had trouble with allowing for implementation with fidelity across the different range of environments. And with all of those challenges, they didn’t go very far, very quickly. And so, the need for and the case for investing in more learning science, or the science that could underpin these tools and products of different kinds of practices that case, was not made very well.

Chris Riback: Do you have just a slight, a bit of optimism on the government investment side? And that is because while we have seen cuts around the education department, and other government aspects of education, we did see for the FY2020 funding bill, that included at least initially, the $260 million for a social-emotional learning alliance, to support social-emotional learning, and whole child approaches to education.

How significant do you find the earmarked funds? And even if it’s not enough, how important is it to establish that?

Jim Shelton: So I think that it’s fantastic that in an environment where resources are often constrained, that that much money was set aside for a part of the education system that has been under-invested. There’s been a lack of attention to the role that social-emotional learning plays, and supporting kids in their core involvement, even in their academic development, let alone the impetus for some of the social- emotional resources was school shootings. And it’s a shame that school shootings had to be the impetus. But also, obviously, those resources will be helpful in setting the foundational conditions for kids to feel mentally and emotionally safe in school. That’s the hope at least. So I think that that’s critically important. But what I’ll say is what it does one more time, is it kind of isolates social, emotional learning from the other kinds of work that actually need to happen.

What’s really important is that at some point soon we have a fundamental rethinking of what are we trying to accomplish in terms of producing – when we say, “whole children,” what does that mean? And how do these things integrate? How do the academic outcomes and skills, the other cognitive skills, and social-emotional skills, and the formation of identity, and foundational mental health, and physical health – how do those things integrate and intertwine?

Which aspects of them are foundational and are required for progress on all of the others? And what do they look like in our aspirations for what every thriving adult ought to have? And we need to get clear on those definitions, clear on how we know whether we’re making progress against them, but most importantly, clear about how we can deliver them in a variety of contexts and environments for kids and make that job doable for the adults who have them in their care. None of that is simple, but that’s the work that we have to do.

Chris Riback: So let me ask you about the philanthropy side as well, where you have deep experience, too. Many of our top philanthropists are focused on education. What are the pros and cons of someone like that, in an organization, taking the lead on innovating education? Should education innovation be dependent on individual philanthropists?

Jim Shelton: So the short answer to that is, no. In education, innovation should not be dependent on individual philanthropists. But, especially in the absence of the kind of funding that we’ve talked about, individual philanthropists leaning in to contribute to moving the field of education and the understanding of how young people of all backgrounds can learn and succeed, is critical.

It’s insufficient, but it is necessary, especially now. And so, there are things that we need to watch for about private individuals. As I said, they don’t have to be fully democratic. They can make decisions on their own. And so, the question becomes, what are the philanthropists doing with their resources? Who are they talking to and engaging as they are testing their thinking about how they’re going to expend their resources? What evidence are they relying upon as they both try to expand things that exist and try things that are new? Because we obviously need to make much more progress, much more quickly than we have in the past. We can’t do that by just doing the things we’ve done before.

Those are all things that philanthropists should be transparent about, and frankly, held accountable for. But there’s no question about the potential and vital role they could play in helping us to move forward, both domestically and around the world.

Chris Riback: Let’s talk then as well about equity, which you raised earlier, and a key focus, I think, of your life, it really sounds like – and a huge part of what has motivated you maybe even since that incredible third grade story. What does equity mean to you?

Jim Shelton: What equity means to me is that each person has access to what they need to realize their full potential, and that we are clear that someone’s background is not the thing that is keeping them from achieving that level of performance. What it also means is that we have to have a shift in mindsets and mental models, because our fundamental belief set is not that people just need different levels and types of resources to get to a potential that is very similar across. Most people think we have these really wide variances, and that potential that would beg you not to invest in some people. That was the whole premise of people like Charles Murray and “The Bell Curve,” which was resoundingly disproven. So, equity is about giving people the opportunity to reach their full potential and getting things out of their way.

Chris Riback: I spoke recently with Karen Pittman, co-founder, president, CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, who also gave government service, like you. And she has said, “If we’re really going to address equity issues and embrace this idea that learning is social-emotional, we really have to acknowledge the importance that community partners play.” I imagine that is an area that you think a whole heck of a lot about. Where and how do the voices of communities, of parents, and what they want for their children, of the students themselves, get heard and put into action when it comes to improving our public education system at scale?

Jim Shelton: Yes, so I’m going to give a little bit of a long answer for this one, because again, grounding in the science, right? If you take what I just said, which is that when you look at the basic machinery of humans, we all have roughly the same basic machinery for learning. And one of the things that’s really important about that is it is malleable. It is malleable based on the experiences that you have in your life, both positive and negative, and the relationships you have in your life, both positive and negative. And the environments you find yourself in, both positive and negative. And the kind of community that you live in both offers positives and negatives, depending on the environment.

So by definition, at the most base level, at the scientific level, your community plays a fundamental role. And each of the people in your community, whether it be your most inner community, in your household, or the broader community that you have with peers or the other influences in your life, all of those things have an influence on how you progress and develop as an individual. So at a fundamental level, shaping the environments and the contexts that people find themselves at becomes a critical part of helping them reach their full potential.

The context of bias has a deep impact on your ability to develop. The context of poverty has a deep impact on your ability to develop. And if we don’t recognize those as barriers to progress, and tackle them with the network of resources and partners that it takes to actually address them, then we’re going to not realize what I described as the full dream of equity in education.

So then that comes back to then, how do you tackle those challenges and issues? And how do you make clear what the aspirations are going to be? Well, to try and set those separate and apart from the people who live them every day, who are most responsible for them every day, who had the most power over how they actually play out, is folly.

You can’t get there from here, trying to do it as a clairvoyant from the outside looking in. So giving community voice and family voice and leveraging them, not only as folks to buy into your ideas, but as actually co-developers of solutions, helping to build their awareness of what works in the world, and what has happened in other places, so they can be more informed partners in the work. All of that work is a part of crafting solutions that are going to have a much greater impact and create more opportunity for the young people that we’re trying to serve.

Chris Riback: Jim, are there places that you see, where we are doing right by all children, and can those areas be scaled? I guess are there things that you see going on out there, that you just know are ripe for scaling, and you’ve seen them work in microcosms, and you know that these are just primed to grow?

Jim Shelton: Yes. I mean the good news is, there are things that work. What I would say is that, the statement “it works for all children,” is a really, really big statement, right?

Chris Riback: Yes.

Jim Shelton: But, there are things that work. There are things that work for large portions of the population. There are things that work and actually are not that expensive to do. And so all of those things that we feel confident can be scaled, and would serve kids, especially better than the status quo, we should be doing that with all due haste. Glasses are not a new invention. It is pretty clear that they are essential for kids who have disabilities in vision, that without addressing that issue, it’s very hard for them to engage fully in the learning process.

And yet, we are failing to scale the basic solutions around getting kids who are low income glasses so they can actually engage and perform in school. That is one of the most obvious kinds of examples. But there are other programs, whether it’s at the top end of getting kids out, of getting them to actually complete their FAFSA, so they actually enrolled in college in the fall, and then stay enrolled. Or whether it’s around programs that have gone through rigorous trials and evaluations to produce evidence of their impacts, like BAR, which is a social, emotional intervention, that actually has been demonstrated, not only to improve the culture of schools, but also to improve academic and graduation outcomes.

There are a number of programs out there, numerous programs out there, that have demonstrated, time and time again, that they work for large numbers of kids.

Chris Riback: Two questions to close out. One, the science and the Science of Learning and Development. To what extent should the science drive the innovations that we want to see to help children thrive?

Jim Shelton: So I believe that the science should underpin the innovations that we want to see available for children and help them thrive. We talked about how other sectors work. When you think about a field like medicine, there’s so much that everyone knows there is left to learn. But everyone works from a basically a solid stable understanding of the current state of the field of science. And you may work hard to approve a different perspective, but you are working with that recognizing that there is an understanding of how people think things work today.

There’s just no corollary in the education, and in the science of learning space, where that kind of understanding exists broadly across people in the field. There was a group literally called the Science of Learning and Development Coalition, that tried to pulled together a consensus view of how neuroscience, and cognitive science, and behavioral science, and all the other sciences that impact learning and development integrate to form a solid foundational scientific base from which we can continue to do research, continue to do R and D, and push our thinking about what the possibilities are in terms of new areas of science that could impact a learning outcome.

That discipline needs to be more fully developed in the education space and from that is where all innovation ought to spur. Now that said, it doesn’t mean that everything happens in a lab first. One of the things that we could get much better at is using data and science to identify positive anomalies in the field. Those places where kids are outperforming, teachers are outperforming, schools are outperforming, whole districts are outperforming relative to their peers, relative to similar populations of kids, relative to whatever you want. And using science to go in and better ways, more disciplined ways, understand what is making them perform better than the others? What if that could actually be extrapolated to benefit others? And how do you package that in ways that allows other people to do it, and scale it quickly, to benefit many more children? That’s what I think ought to be happening with the science

Chris Riback: Which just leads to my last question. There’s this incredibly admirable contradiction that I find in doing these conversations. I often come across it, and you personify it as well. On the one hand, you see some of the hardest parts of life. You have seen the children who don’t get the benefit of the best of what learning and development should offer. Children who, as a result, don’t get fair access to opportunity, or growth, or even to health. And yet you, and others, remain, it seems, relentlessly optimistic. So one, how do you do that? Two, what’s next for you? Because I think there’s a lesson for all of us in both of those questions.

Jim Shelton: So I think there are probably three things that keep me optimistic. The first one is that it’s very rare that I meet a three-year-old that doesn’t seem like a genius. And so, recognizing that potential every time I run into a three-year-old makes me realize that it’s just about us figuring it out.

The second is that there are, as I said, things that work. They are places that are doing things that people would have said never could have been done with the populations that they serve. And more and more people are doing that in ways that they’re codifying and making it available to others, so you are seeing good practices scale.

But the third thing that gives me real hope is that what I think of as, in many ways, the first time there is a much broader cross section of the education community that is thinking hard about what the science has to say about the future, about how technology can be used to accelerate the pace of our learning about the science and about learning itself.

Jim Shelton: That those things then are being translated into tools and resources that not only can they be scaled, but they can be scaled at really low marginal costs in some cases. And so, that means it can be made available to many, many more people. And those three things together make me think that with a better understanding of what we’re trying to get done for children, that’s much more holistic, we have a shot of getting there. And it’s in this grounded in science.

Chris Riback: And what’s next for you, Jim?

Jim Shelton: For me, I continue to have my life’s mission to figure out how to dramatically improve life and life outcomes for, frankly, the lowest income portions, of not only this country, but people in the world. I have continued to believe that education is the surest path to that, but no, it is not the only one. That it is necessary, but not sufficient.

And so, I am looking for ways to create more integrated solutions that address some of the contextual factors that we’ve talked about at the same time as they try and accelerate learning. I believe philanthropists investing their resources in that is really important and possible, not at the scale, even at scales – at multiples – of what has happened before, given the amount of wealth that’s been created in the world, and I want to try and at release that. So that’s what I’m doing,

Chris Riback: Jim, thank you. Thank you for your time, and thank you for the work and dedication that you’ve given, at least since third-grade, and my guess is probably even before that.

Jim Shelton:Thanks, Chris. Really appreciate it.

Chris Riback: That was my conversation with Jim Shelton. My thanks to Jim for joining, and you for listening. To learn more about how to transform 21st century education using 21st century science, go to I’m Chris Riback, I’ll talk with you soon.