Ensuring Intentional Innovations

Ensuring Intentional Innovations

Innovationautonomy, and flexibility are just some of the buzz words resonating through our nation’s education reform efforts to provide more local control to schools and teachers. Because the contexts of school communities and students’ lives matter, it is critical to offer avenues through which teachers and school leaders can effectively tailor their schools to the specific needs and strengths of their families.

The White House has been recognizing and celebrating Champions of Change working on the front lines to help students “Win the Future.” Our national government is offering flexibility and incentivizing effective reforms through initiatives such as Race to the Top and the recent NCLB waivers. A few states and districts are encouraging school leaders to implement innovations that will improve student achievement. Colorado, where I am currently working at my second innovation school, thanks to the Innovation Schools Act of 2008, is just one example.

Academic achievement data has continued to reveal a gap for many generations, clearly indicating that what has been done in the past is not working for all students. It is obvious that we must begin to do things differently and do so beyond a few successful pockets. However, before swarms of well-intentioned educators unleash the innovations that our historically failing system needs, let me offer these points of reflection from a practitioner’s perspective,

What are the questions to consider before designing and implementing an innovation at the school and classroom level?”

  1. To what end are we designing and implementing this reform?
  2. If the answer to the first question is, “improved academic achievement as measured by growth on standardized tests,” of what longer term, desired outcome are we hoping improved academic achievement is an indicator?
  3. What rich body of research proves that this idea has a significant chance to achieve the longer-term, intended outcome?
  4. What are the unintended consequences of this proposed program? Is it possible that while it may increase test scores, it could also be a detriment towards our larger purpose and vision for educating youth?
  5. Before we design and implement this reform, have all stakeholders (students, teachers, families, etc.) agreed on what the problem is that we are trying to address with this innovation? Do most stakeholders agree on what the root-causes are of this problem?
  1. What are the resources we need to implement this reform with integrity through the depth of its intention and across the breadth of its scale with fidelity? (qualified staff, funding, facility, etc.)

Now that we have vetted our plan with these questions, “How can district, state, and federal policies support the design and implementation of these thoroughly vetted innovations?”

  1. Ensure that school leaders, while being held highly accountable, have full capacity to manage all available resources (including financial ones) in order to focus the application of them towards the reform’s intended outcome.
  2. Ensure full transparency about what resources are available.
  3. Encourage directors of centralized systems to be as flexible as possible when asked by school leaders to provide services that lie outside of the typical way their resource has been used in the past.

If reform leaders use the first six questions to carefully vet their plans and policymakers support those that survive this rigorous vetting process in the three ways listed above, we would see a dramatic increase in both the effectiveness and sustainability of those ideas currently waiting in the innovation bullpen.

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