Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Quick and the Deep

As regular readers know, I’ve given California a hard time over the last few years.  Some of its rules around structure and funding of community colleges strike me as perverse, poorly thought out, and doomed to fail.  I stand by those judgments.

But even California is capable of getting one right.  This week it announced the creation of a $50 million “innovation fund” for public higher education.  Apparently, the idea was born as a retreat from a failed effort at a state-driven online entity; policymakers still want to encourage the development and use of online courses, but have come to realize that it’s likelier to work when the faculty and staff on actual campuses are involved in it.  The innovation fund seems to be designed to encourage people on campuses to come up with ideas that have promise, and to help them carry those ideas through to fruition.

This is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.  

Policymakers too rarely take a “laboratories” approach to different campuses.  When you have a single system encompassing many different campuses -- California alone has over a hundred community colleges -- it’s at least theoretically possible to test different interventions alongside each other.   If you’re really ambitious, you might take, say, a half-dozen of them, and test each at multiple locations.  See what works, and let the results tell you the next step.

There’s nothing glamorous about that process, and it doesn’t lend itself to easy political coalition-building because winners and losers aren’t necessarily known in advance.  Little glory attaches to “let’s try stuff!”  

But the potential payoff is great.  For best results, I’d love to see the funds split into two categories: the quick and the deep.  For “quick” innovations, allocate a set amount to each of several colleges and require them to report back on what they did with it.  Don’t wait for the ideas before making the funding available. (You’d need some “thou shalt nots,” for obvious reasons, but they shouldn’t be terribly restrictive.)  For “deep” ones, a more standard competitive RFP process makes sense.  Too often, grants that ostensibly promote innovation require severe amounts of detail upfront, and usually within a very short timeframe.  That method can work reasonably well when the overall concept is predefined.  But if you’re trying to grow new stuff, a certain open-endedness matters.  That doesn’t fit well with the “competitive RFP” approach.

The “quick” approach allows for many eyes on the issue, and for a truly iterative process.  The “deep” approach allows for rigorous testing.  Both matter.

California may have backed into the idea, but it’s a good one anyway.  And it looks like the state is putting enough money on the table to matter.  

I haven’t said this in a while, but for once, California could actually be a national leader.  I’d love to see this wave move East, quickly and deeply.