Google Project Loon balloon on display at Airforce Museum in Christchurch

If any corporate lab can claim the mantle as the successor to legendary research centers such as AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and Xerox Corp’s Palo Alto Research Center, it is Google X, the research unit of the tech giant whose innovations in Web search and telephony have changed our world. And the approach of Google X, as well as its parent company, to taking on new and unconsidered challenges offers lessons for school reformers as they continue their efforts to transform American public education.

geniuslogoBest-known these days for the continuing development of Google Glass, the wearable gadget that allows users to surf the Web while walking, Google X has garnered a reputation for working on the kind of wiz-bang ideas that were once the province of storylines for episodes of Star Trek and The Jetsons. One of those ideas is the driverless car, which counts on GPS satellites to provide it direction on roads and highways. One can imagine the driver-less cars being used by cash-strapped cities as replacements for cops looking out for local speed demons, or by a certain tech company to take street view photos of landmarks for its mapping applications. Otherwise, the driver less car is mere fun.

Then there are the inventions that are less gimmick and more useful. One such development is the concept of providing Wi-Fi Internet service over a network of balloons similar to those used by meteorologists to survey weather conditions. By providing over-the-air services in mountainous and other remote parts of the world where building out cables and fiber optic networks is cost-prohibitive, the effort called Project Loon would open up communications to those who live there and currently lack Web access. For third world nations with little of the way of modern infrastructure, Project Loon would be akin to the Green Revolution in modern agriculture pioneered in the mid-20th century by agronomists such as Norman Borlaug.

Google X isn’t the only unit of the tech giant that projects, promising and otherwise, that is ongoing. There are the company’s efforts in cities such as Kansas City, Mo. to provide high-speed wired Internet service and costs far lower than that of traditional cable and telecom firms. There’s also the company’s push to have the federal government devote so-called white space (or unused television airwaves) to wireless Internet service. And then there are the merely useful products Google has developed such as ChromeCast, a device that resembles a USB drive used to stream video from your laptop to a HDTV in order to view a flick on Hulu. Certainly not all of the projects will pan out; more than likely, Google will end up shuttering some of those projects the way it gets rid of dormant Web services such as its Reader news feed app, but which was put out to the online pasture earlier this summer. At the same time, these projects could also end up being the kind of big scores and giant leaps that the company has had with Gmail (now, along with Microsoft’s Outlook/Hotmail, the dominant e-mail service) and Android, the latter of which went from being an also-ran to established smartphone platforms such as BlackBerry and Symbian to one of the two primary players in mobile telephony and computing.

Certainly the profit motive is a driving force behind nearly all of Google projects. After all, the company operates the dominant Web search engine through which it generated $44 billion in ad revenue in its 2012 fiscal year (of its $50 billion in total revenue) from companies looking to reach those myriad eyeballs. Anything that brings eyeballs to Google’s search engine — including e-mail services and phones — equals additional revenues. But it is more than just about money. From where Google cofounder Larry Page sits, the company shouldn’t be satisfied with merely running in place. Each day, in Page’s mind, he and his staffers should be thinking about developing new technologies that both change the world around them for the better as well as drive tremendous revenue growth for the company itself. Essentially, it’s go big or go home. You can only go big by being willing to fully rethink already established approaches to addressing challenges as well as actually thinking about developing technologies and services for issues that neither customers nor competitors have given much attention. This value of tackling — and overcoming — great challenges is why Page and his team are as excited (if not more so) about such wiz-bang projects as driverless cars as they are about the latest Google Web app.

But merely inventing is not enough. As Page noted in an interview this past April with Wired‘s Steven Levy, an invention is useless if it isn’t made available for use — and isn’t usable — by everyone in the world. As a company in the private sector, Google also focuses on commercialization in order to turn ideas and inventions into tools and services that can be used by real live people. This isn’t exactly easy. Great inventions can end up being useless for a lot of reasons. One reason is because its underlying design isn’t robust enough to be sustainable. For example, earlier efforts to use balloons for providing communications services didn’t pan out because inventors never figured out such matters as how to deal with the reality that balloons can’t remain in fixed positions for very long (after all, they are subject to jet streams and other forms of wind) and cannot stay up for long (the longest a balloon has ever remained afloat is 55 days, far too short for anything that is supposed to be a cheaper form of satellite). So Google spent the past two years floating hundreds of balloons and learned plenty; this included concluding that a chain of balloons would have to be put into place in order to compensate for the fact that they will float around (and away), and figuring out the kind of new-age materials that will be needed for them to survive the harsh elements nature (and ultimately, God) puts in place.

Another reason why inventions don’t become successful is that inventors fail at the rather practical matter of making the device or service simple enough for people to use and at the same time, armed with enough features for them to do what is needed. Google itself hasn’t always gotten this right; consider the rancor over the new layout and interface for Gmail, as well as the failures of many of its efforts to take on the likes of Twitter and Facebook in social media. But when Google gets it right, it has gotten it really correct. It’s the spare, easy-to-use design of Google’s search engine that has made its default tool for scouring the Web for many. Making the complex simple is why Google X counts among its leaders, Andy Rubin, a longtime tech guru who previously led Android’s development as a mobile computing platform. Rubin has plenty of understanding of how to make a device sustainable and simple to use. After all, as the boss of smartphone pioneer Danger, he helped develop telecom giant T-Mobile’s famed Sidekick, which introduced a generation to the wonders that have become normal for every cellphone user.

Going big and thinking smart (and simple) has long ago proven to be the key to Google’s past and current success; it will likely prove to be the critical element in whatever future success Google X projects achieve. And school reformers can also apply these principles to advancing systemic reform.

Sure, the nation’s education crisis are largely not necessarily technical in nature. But as with the challenges undertaken by Google X, they are major. This is especially true when one keeps in mind that we are now in the second phase of systemic reform. Keeping children from dropping out and holding schools accountable for providing the basics isn’t enough, especially given the demands of the increasingly global and knowledge-based economy and society in which we live. This means overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and manage the performance of teachers,  providing all children with comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they need for success in college and the working world, and addressing how we provide all children with cultures of genius that nurture their potential.

These problems can’t be solved solely by tinkering around the margins. For example, offering performance pay bonuses to teachers for high-quality work won’t work so long as the traditional teacher compensation approaches (including raises based on seniority and degree attainment) remain in place; nor will other tinkering with pay spur both improvements in student achievement and reward teachers for high-quality work if the other concerns of teachers (including the desire for career paths beyond merely remaining in classrooms or moving into principal’s offices) aren’t addressed. But teacher quality isn’t the only area in which a rethink is long-overdue. Children who attend schools in rural communities face many of the same challenges as their big-city counterparts in receiving high-quality education. In fact, the struggles may be even more acute because they are stuck attending rural districts that are unattractive work environments for many teachers (who looking for the conveniences of suburbia and urban locales), lack the access to high-speed Internet needed to take advantage of online and blended learning tools, and are plagued by many of the academic and operational dysfunctions of their big-city and suburban counterparts. For the few families in states and cities where school choice is plentiful, the drudgery of submitting applications to every school can be as much a barrier to them exercising choice as the lack of transportation options. Then there are the other operational issues facing schools regardless of being traditional public, charter, or private, including such basic matters as how to provide children with high-quality math and science teachers when they are in short supply.

Transforming American public education requires fully rethinking all of the policies and practices that contribute to the failures of its super-clusters in providing all children with high-quality teaching, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and cultures of genius in which their potential can be nurtured.

For school reformers, going big must start with launching the movement’s versions of Google X, each one engaged in moon-shot thinking and activities that take on challenges big and small. Social entrepreneurs and institution-minded players in the movement can stat   School reform philanthropies must also be willing to back such efforts with dollars. This is certainly difficult for many of the biggest players; after all, on the charter school front alone, philanthropists have moved away from backing a wide variety of operators to concentrating on scaling up the most-successful large operator such as KIPP and Green Dot. This may mean that the movement begins exploring new ways of bolstering philanthropic dollars as well, including new funds similar to the angel investor funds used in the tech sector to fund start-ups.  Meanwhile the movement will have to look to impromptu innovators who have traditionally worked outside of education to bring their expertise to education. Imagine what a Larry Page could do for education if Google launched an initiative focused on the kind of moon shots he demands and desires?

But simply developing new innovations isn’t enough. The underlying structures of new reforms must be sustainable for the long haul. They must also be simple-yet-comprehensive enough for all — especially families — to use.  As seen with state school data systems which have proven to be too complex and yet, not comprehensive enough, for families to use to make smart decisions, too much complexity and too much simplicity can be formulas for failure. [This is also an issue with efforts on the school accountability front such as A-to-F grading, which is seductively simple, yet obscures much of the information families need to make smart decisions.] Reformers should look to the private sector to see how simple-yet-comprehensive design can be achieved. Washington, D.C., for example, has launched a common process for families to choose charter and traditional district schools (albeit ones within designated school ones); an entire state, say, Louisiana, could develop a similar system through which families can choose any public or private school options.

It’s time for the school reform movement to go big and go smart. The example demonstrated by Google and its X research lab is one that can — and should be — followed.