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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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.

But that disparity could be evolving toward something better, he says. There have been discussions in Congress, as well as among Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s coterie of top administrators, about creating an education “DARPA,” referring to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Defense Department agency responsible for developing everything from the Internet to airborne drones.

“A DARPA for education,” says Shelton, with a hint of wonder in his voice, “is something on the horizon.”

Shelton has encountered plenty of bumps along the two-mile route from Southeast Washington to his current office at Department of Education headquarters. His college career almost took a nosedive his freshman year, when he flunked a calculus course (not because of bad grades but for failing to attend classes) and lost his scholarship. He was forced to go into a program for working students, alternating semesters in school with six-month stints at a job. Then he scored a summer internship with Exxon, which gave him enough money to stay in school full time. The company also gave him a job when he graduated.

His Exxon experience even gave him a moment of glittering redemption with that math professor who had given him an F in calculus. On a visit to his alma mater, from which Shelton had graduated with a degree in computer science in 1989, he ran into the professor, now the head of the Morehouse computer-science program, funded by Exxon.