The Root 100 Close-Up: James Shelton

The U.S. Department of Education's innovation chief works to create equal opportunities for all students.

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James H. Shelton III's teenage years at upscale, mostly white private schools in Washington, D.C., were painful. "I think I was kind of funny looking for a while there," he recalls. "I didn't have much money and my clothes didn't fit. The other guys were wearing Members Only jackets and polo shirts, and I didn't have any of that." Not an easy adjustment for a bright young man with limited resources.

But in retrospect, the outcome -- graduation with a gold-plated diploma from prestigious Gonzaga College High School -- was a lot better than it could have been. Shelton, now head of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement, could have ended up at one of the gritty, all-black public high schools in his Southeast Washington neighborhood, whose graduates would be lucky just to land low-paying jobs.

"I saw the difference," says Shelton, one of the 2011 The Root 100 honorees. "I saw what education and opportunity meant for me after graduation, and it made me angry. I know I wasn't the smartest kid in the neighborhood, far from it. But as far as opportunities were concerned? No comparison."

The diploma led to a full scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, an educational Garden of Eden for the young Shelton, who suddenly found himself "going to school with a bunch of brothers who wanted to do the same things I did."

Eventually those early opportunities also sent him on a career track leading to a high-level job in the federal government, a few miles from his old neighborhood. And the experience of educational exclusivity gave him an abiding commitment to the educationally disenfranchised.

Nowadays Shelton, 44, the son of a D.C.-cabdriver father and federal-staffer mother, gets to put that sense of commitment into action in ways that can affect millions of American schoolkids. As assistant deputy secretary of education, he oversees the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, a cornerstone of the Obama education program, funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. His office also manages competitive teacher quality, school choice and learning technology programs for the department.

The department recently named 23 Investing in Innovation finalists -- the so-called i3 grant recipients -- to share $150 million for promoting science and math achievement and increasing graduation rates in rural schools, among other things.

All of which leaves Shelton impatient for more. "We need to accelerate the pace at which we're creating solutions," he says. "We need to go for things that have more substantial impacts." Tweaking the system here and there is fine, but there has to be an investment in finding "true breakthroughs," he says.

Shelton, with a working background in both education entrepreneurialism and computer systems, is uniquely qualified to talk about educational innovation.

"The education sector spends 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent on research and development," Shelton says. "Compare that to the health care sector, which spends about 15 percent." Not exactly a prescription for educational change.

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