Education Innovation Month Promotes Great Ideas

The RI Department of Education spearheads an effort to improve the student experience

The Bay Magazine ·

Education and innovation are two words that often seem incompatible. After all, the bulk of our education system hasn’t changed since the 1800s.

But Rhode Island may change all that. Department of Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is working with the state’s Chief Innovation Officer, Richard Culatta, to foster creative solutions designed to improve the educational experience for all of Rhode Island’s children. With the support of Dana Borrelli-Murray, Director of the Highlander Institute, they have dubbed September “Education Innovation Month.”

The goal of this month is to unite teachers, educational technology companies and community leaders in creating a vision, objectives and goals for Rhode Island’s youth. The month will feature events designed to highlight innovative practices at area schools, as well as showcasing the efforts of local start-ups in areas such as personalized learning.

The initiative arose from a program at CommerceRI, which offers Innovation and Industry Cluster Grants. Commissioner Wagner says, “One of the pieces that has attracted a lot of interest in RI is the ways that technology can improve the delivery of instruction, the way we assess student learning, the way we engage student motivation – there’s a lot of interest in that.” Wagner cites the Highlander Institute’s Fuse Fellowship program, which offers training and support to teachers who are committed to personalized education; those teachers in turn provide support within their schools and districts.

The state is also expanding offerings in Career and Technical Education (CTE), trying to blend truly academic preparation with job-relevant skills in a way that matches the desires of employers with the needs of the students. In addition to charter schools, they’ve also been exploring empowerment schools, schools that have more autonomy to design their instructional programs, with the input of teachers, families and students.

According to Culatta, “Rhode Island is becoming the R & D shop for education for other parts of the country. We need to take that opportunity and that responsibility seriously. We have a responsibility to pilot some of these new ideas here because we can; it’s much harder to do in bigger states like California or Texas. We have to think about how we leverage that unique responsibility to make a difference not just here in our state, but in the rest of the country.”

Toward that end, several events are planned for Education Innovation Month. On September 17, RIDE is sponsoring the Innovation Powered by Technology Conference at the RI Convention Center. With a keynote speech by Dr. Buddy Barry of Kentucky and breakout sessions on Digital Age Teaching and Learning, Personalized Learning, and the CS4RI initiative (aiming to have Computer Science taught in every RI public school by December 2017), this should be an exciting event. Tickets are available at

In addition, Providence is hosting the Digital Promise Education Innovation Cluster convention, bringing together leaders in the educational technology, research, education, philanthropic, investment and policy communities. This annual conference, to be held September 21–23, gathers more than 100 leaders from over 30 communities around the country and the world.

Finally, from September 23–25, Providence will host its first Startup Weekend EDU (SWEDU), an action-oriented weekend event designed to take entrepreneurs from idea to startup in just 54 hours. The focus will be on Culturally Relevant Content as the theme for identifying and solving critical issues in education. The goal is to bring educators into the process of solving problems they face firsthand, integrating their perspective into proposed solutions at conception.

While Commissioner Wagner is enthusiastic about these innovations, he stresses the importance of evaluating new ideas to make sure that they do not negatively impact students. “It’s my job to make sure that, in the meantime, kids are learning. I’m a conservative radical: let’s think big, but let’s take small steps. We want to make sure that we do this in a thoughtful way. We’re not just changing for change’s sake; it’s a thoughtful, sequenced approach anchored in quality teaching and learning.”

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