In the current era of research-driven innovation, policymakers and school leaders look to a future in which they consider a steady stream of new, rigorously tested tools when making critical decisions about education.
That vision is tempered by present realities. A significant backlog of solutions based in university research and development have yet to move into the hands of education decision-makers, and a growing number of market-based innovations have not undergone rigorous testing. So the gap between the promise of evidence-based solutions and the decision-making needs of educators is large.
A creative new public-private partnership in designed to address this gap. In the Jefferson Education Accelerator, the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia will be part of unlocking the solution-to-market backlog and ensuring that innovations introduced to the education market actually work.
A public-private partnership cultivated by the Curry School of Education Foundation, the Jefferson Education Accelerator will provide business development mentorship, analysis, networking opportunities, access to financing, and most importantly, evaluation of products and services to growth-stage companies in the education sector.
Although the accelerator was birthed out of the Curry School Foundation, as a company it is completely separate from the school and the University of Virginia. The Curry School’s role in the enterprise will focus solely on evaluating innovations and assessing implementations that come through the company’s door.
This new company is not the first idea out of the Curry School to enter the market and is the culmination of years of innovation at the Curry School.
“The Curry School is known nationally for its impact on policy, classroom practice and technological innovations,” said Curry School Dean Robert Pianta, who chairs the board of the Jefferson Education Accelerator. “Curry has already seeded other successful education start-ups including CaseNEX, PALS and Teachstone.”
The idea for the accelerator was launched, in part, by awareness of the many great ideas being developed by faculty and researchers at U.Va. and in the private sector that were nowhere close to getting into schools, where they belonged. The other motivating factor was the need for university-based evaluation expertise to become more closely involved with market-driven vetting of products and services sold to school systems every year.
“Perhaps the most unique feature of the Curry School’s involvement in JEA is the way we hope to influence how education products and services get into school systems and educational decision-making,” Pianta said. “We think it’s critical that these potential solutions have some proof of effectiveness. That’s where we can play a role.
“Our value to these companies, and our challenge to them is, ‘You think your widget works? Then prove it,’” he said. “Our job is to provide neutral-party evaluation of companies’ claims to better guide district decision-makers and add value to companies’ prospects.”
As Pianta and members of the Curry School Foundation board of directors began discussing the gap between what can work to help student learning and the solutions available to schools, and the role of a research university in vetting products and services, the idea for the accelerator began to take shape.
“The board has actively supported various initiatives with the goal not of making Curry the best school of education for today’s education sector, but rather the best one for what the sector will look like tomorrow,” said Andrew Rotherham, vice chair of the Curry School of Education Foundation. “The dean and the board wanted Curry to play a role in the innovation part of the education sector, but in a way that added value beyond what was already out there and was sustainable over time. The kind of talent and investment the accelerator has already attracted speaks to the opportunities that exist to do things differently in this sector in a way that honors traditional values, but also leads much-needed change.”
According to Pianta, faculty and researchers at the Curry School have decades of experience conducting research and evaluating tools, interventions and curriculum.
“The accelerator will be a new source of opportunities to engage in important scholarship that can make a difference to he field,” he said. “As the JEA builds a portfolio of companies and activities, there will be opportunities for student internships in various aspects of the work – evaluation, strategic planning, market analysis.”
The ultimate goal is for the Curry School to be part of bringing solutions to large-scale education challenges.
“There are millions of children in hundreds of thousands of schools across the country,” Pianta said. “In order to make significant impact in education, we know we have to find solutions that will reach large chunks of those at once.”
Through an endeavor like the Jefferson Education Accelerator, the Curry School hopes to see that happen.
“We think that the Curry School’s involvement with the JEA is perhaps one of the most novel ways in which an education school can have a real impact on moving solutions for education to the field,” Pianta said.