With President Biden’s signature turning the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law, our nation is poised to make historic investments in its highways, public transit, railways, airports, ports, water systems, broadband networks and electric grid.
Even in our hyper-polarized political climate, the bill garnered widespread bipartisan support. A key reason? Many people realize that 2,500 cities cannot design, fund and build a national network of roads, bridges, tunnels, railways and electricity transmission lines by themselves.
Nobody wants hundreds of bridges and tunnels being built by trial and error. If a team digging a tunnel in Tennessee discovers unusual soil conditions and attempts an innovative approach to managing those conditions, federal coordination and information management makes it possible for teams in, say, Arkansas and elsewhere around the country to access those lessons learned when they discover similar soil conditions. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Federal facilitation of this type of information sharing is especially important in situations where teams otherwise lack incentives and/or mechanisms to share their experiences:
- Pilots who experience unexpected hazard conditions, such as large flocks of airborne geese or inoperative radio tower lights, are asked to report to Air Traffic Control. The FAA then aggregates, analyzes and disseminates this information to other pilots.
- Doctors who notice patients experiencing reactions to vaccines are asked to report to the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which facilitates this information being aggregated, analyzed and disseminated to other physicians.
- The National Weather Service collects data from thousands of reporting sites throughout the country that it then aggregates, analyzes and distributes back to those sites, as well as to the general public.
In each of these situations—and many more—the federal government makes possible the collection, analysis and dissemination of information that would otherwise not flow. When the federal government does this, it acts not as a regulator or as a funder, but as an information aggregator and distributor.
Ironically, the sector of our economy in which our federal government arguably does the least to facilitate information-sharing is education.
As many reading this probably know, our nation’s education “system” is no system at all. Rather, it is a collection of more than 13,000 school districts that barely share any information with each other, and certainly do not share information about education technology in a systematic and actionable manner.
Why? Primarily because nobody involved has the time, incentive or mechanism to do so. When school districts spend months implementing a new edtech tool, they often learn a great deal—and they learn it the hard way. Districts do not regularly document and publicize their experiences, even though doing so could help numerous (but unknown) other districts that are considering using the same tool. That’s a primary reason that about half of all education technology tools purchased by school districts are likely to be not used at all, and technologies are often inequitably implemented.
As I have written previously, the lack of information-sharing between school districts is a textbook example of what economists call a “collective action problem.” It will never solve itself. Absent a major systematic change, our schools will continue to make huge numbers of well-intentioned mistakes that cause tens of millions of students to miss out on billions of hours of learning experiences.
Right now, most of what the U.S. Department of Education can be categorized as doing for its 13,000 school districts is regulating or funding. What we have yet to see, and desperately need now, is for the Department to act as an information aggregator, generator and distributor. We need it to help us overcome the fragmented nature of our education system so educators can learn from each other.
Professionals in most sectors of our economy have far better access to information than our educators, who are struggling to figure out how to most effectively select, implement and use more than 9,000 different edtech tools.
Most of us believe that technology has the potential to dramatically improve student learning and reduce inequity. But we have yet to realize that potential, in large part because of education’s ongoing collective action problem.
In the months to come, can the U.S. Department of Education learn from other federal agencies and embrace the role and responsibility of distributing information to educators and school leaders who sorely need it? I sure hope so.