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Government as Innovation Catalyst

The best use of government is as a catalyst for social system innovation. Yes, that's right: "Innovation bureaucrat" need not be an oxymoron. Leaders should get the innovation reaction started—and then get out of the way.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is showing how it can be done. The "Race to the Top" program offers $4 billion in grants to states committed to reforming their education systems. Duncan outlined a clear goal of restoring the U.S. as a world leader in preparing students to succeed in college and the workplace and announced the first grants on Mar. 29, 2010—$100 million for Delaware and $500 million for Tennessee.

Instead of spreading the money across the country as usual, Duncan sent a clear message. Imagine the reaction in statehouses across the country when they didn't get a slice of the pie. By being clear and sticking to the announced criteria, Duncan sent a strong signal that states needed to demonstrate a willingness and capacity to transform. Any state with legislation on the books preventing development or expansion of innovative school approaches need not apply. Any state without the means to leverage data and accountability systems to improve measurable performance outcomes need not apply. And, my favorite, any state that couldn't demonstrate effective alignment with local teachers' unions on performance accountability and transformation plans need not apply.

The result has been a scramble across the country to pass conforming legislation, to work through longstanding union issues, and to qualify for the remaining $3.4 billion in grants. (Applications are due June 1; the next grants will be announced in September.)

Stimulating the Legislature

My home state of Rhode Island provides a good example of how Race to the Top has prompted meaningful change at the local level. Less than a year into her post as Rhode Island's education commissioner, Deborah Gist already exemplifies government's role as a catalyst for system change. After visiting every school district (admittedly easy to do in Rhode Island, where 41 are within the state's 1,000 square miles) she made the state's challenge clear. Citing troubling statistics (only 55 percent of the state's graduates go directly to college; Hispanic students have the lowest test scores in the country), she said in a speech to the Rhode Island General Assembly that turning around the state's most troubled schools "is no longer just an issue of educational equity. It's a matter of economic survival." She added: "We are committed to radically transforming our chronically low-achieving schools. If these schools do not or cannot significantly change their culture and improve their performance, we will not hesitate to change them."

A strong signal that Gist was serious about change quickly followed when the superintendent of schools in Central Falls, one of the worst performing school districts in the state, announced a reform plan for its failing high school that called for firing every teacher. Talk about a catalyst for change. The news quickly went national, getting the attention of Secretary Duncan and President Barack Obama, who both spoke about Central Falls as an example of the bold change necessary in our education system.

While continuing negotiations with the local teacher's union, the superintendent moved forward with an application process to hire teachers for the next school year. Eight hundred applications from teachers across the country were received for the approximately 90 job openings at Central Falls High School. Meanwhile, a tentative agreement has been reached to save the current teachers' jobs in return for specific concessions aligned with the school's reform plan. Teachers agreed to work a longer school day, provide more after-school tutoring, accept a new evaluation system, and participate in targeted professional development.

Getting Teachers To Sign On

In a New England state battered with 12.6 percent unemployment and filled with skeptics who have seen change agents come and go, few believed Commissioner Gist could implement local education reform. Her leadership persuaded the 2,000 members of the Providence affiliate of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers to sign onto the Race for the Top application. The Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation raising the state's cap on charter schools from 20 to 35. That means more student-centered schools and progress in holding schools accountable for performance-based outcomes.

There's a long way still to go. Rhode Island didn't win in the first round of Race to the Top. But a transparent scorecard provided by the federal Education Dept. can help the 16 finalists from the first round to see where they fell short—and take action. Rhode Island is well positioned for the next stage, and Gist remains focused on catalyzing statewide reform of the education system. I certainly wouldn't bet against her. She was just named the only educator on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

A similar approach is needed in health care, energy, and economic development. The 21st century screams for social system innovation. We need real system change, and government has an important role to play as innovation catalyst. Let's select government leaders who can play this critical role.

Saul Kaplan is the founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory. Saul also blogs at It's Saul Connected.

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