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.
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.
The professor described a conversation he had had with an Exxon official. "I asked them why they were doing this," the professor said, "and they said, 'If Morehouse is turning out people like Jim Shelton, then we need to support it.' "
Shelton went on to graduate school at Stanford, earning both a master's degree in education and an MBA in 1993. "I wanted to go into education, but my family insisted I had to make money first," he says. His talent at working on computer systems got him the money, but it also revved up his ambition. He was already up to his elbows in educational activities as a volunteer — tutoring needy youngsters, serving as a youth advocate, working at a teen emergency center — but the computer work got him to think systemically.
"I loved the direct service, but how was I going to touch millions of people?" he says.
He has since worked as a partner for a national school-management company and as a consultant with McKinsey & Co., advising corporate executives on business strategy and organizational design. He has also run his own education-related business, setting up charter and contract schools. Before being tagged by the Obama administration, he worked for more than five years as educational program manager for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He and his wife, Sonia, and two sons live near Columbia Heights in Washington.
Shelton clearly knows his stuff, but there can sometimes be an extra note of urgency in his delivery. He calls it being "mission-focused."
He tells about being offered a partnership at a company he had been working for and responding in knee-jerk fashion. "I was literally filling out the partnership papers while having a conversation with one of my mentors in the company," Shelton says. "He was saying, 'You know, at some point you have to stop preparing for something and just do it.' "
The comment rang in Shelton's mind like an alarm bell. A good friend with similar ambitions to his own had just died, and a gnawing idea about doing something more ambitious suddenly spoke up inside him. He pushed the papers aside, submitted his resignation and started planning his own business.
"Life is short," he says. That's the kind of immediacy Shelton wants to bring to the Department of Education.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Shelton oversees the Race to the Top program. He does not.
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.