Monday, January 25, 2010

Massachusetts Education Reform: Innovation Schools

Last week, I outlined turnaround plans for under-performing schools as described in Massachusetts' most recent education reform. Today, I'd like to take a look at the brand new institution of "innovation schools."

An innovation school is a "public school, operating withing a public school district, that is established for the purpose of improving school performance and student achievement through increased autonomy and flexibility," and as such fills the gap between traditional public schools (which are fully under the policies of the local school district) and charter public schools (which are fully independent of the local school district). The flexibility granted an innovation school may be related to:

  • curriculum,
  • budget,
  • school schedule and calendar,
  • staffing policies and procedures,
  • school district policies and procedures, and
  • professional development.
Innovation schools may be either existing schools or new schools, may serve students from multiple school districts, or may be virtual (online) distance-learning programs.

Nearly anyone except private and parochial schools can submit an application to form an innovation school, including parents, teachers, and non-profit organizations. The applications are reviewed by the school committee (i.e. local school board), the local teachers' union, and the district superintendent. The application must include a school prospectus that outlines:
  • the overall vision of the school, including how the increased flexibility will help improve school performance and student achievement;
  • the specific needs or challenges the school will be designed to address;
  • the kind of autonomy and flexibility sought;
  • preliminary components of the school's innovation plan, to be developed in full by a stakeholder committee upon approval of the application;
  • the process that will be implemented to involve the appropriate stakeholders; and
  • a tentative timetable for developing and establishing the school.
Once the application has been approved, the applicant must promptly form an innovation plan committee of not more than 11 people chosen largely by the applicant, provided that it includes:
  • the applicant,
  • a representative of the superintendent,
  • a representative of the school committee,
  • a parent,
  • a principal of the school district, and
  • two teachers, one of whom is nominated by the local teachers' union.
The innovation plan describes how the school expects to improve school performance and student achievement, and must address: curriculum, budget, schedule, staffing (including recruitment, employment, evaluation, and compensation), policies and procedures, and professional development. The plan must include measurable annual goals with a variety of indicators, and should be based on student outcome data, to the extent practicable. The plan may optionally be implemented by an external partner.

The local school committee must hold at least one public hearing before voting whether or not to authorize the school for not more than five years. The school will then be evaluated annually by the district superintendent, and the school committee may amend the plan as necessary if the school fails to meet the goals set out in the innovation plan. If the school fails substantially to meet the plan's goals, the school committee can terminate the school's authorization (but not before the end of the school's third year). If the school meets its goals satisfactorily, school leadership may petition to renew the authorization for another period of not more than five years after convening a stakeholder committee to discuss potential revisions to the plan.

Additionally, the law requires the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education to:
  • provide planning and implementation grants for innovation schools,
  • provide technical assistance to applicants, and
  • collect and publish data and research relating to innovation schools, particularly about successful programs serving limited-English proficient students and other practices in innovation schools that could be adopted by other public schools.
The motivation behind the innovation schools reform seems to be the idea that some schools are locked into policies and procedures that are not optimal for meeting the challenges they face. For these schools, measures such as new leadership, new faculty, or supplemental educational services may not be as helpful as the opportunity to relax certain current policies in favor of something more amenable to their particular circumstances. The new innovation school provisions create an opportunity for schools to benefit from just this kind of flexibility. Moreover, since parents, teachers, universities, and community organizations can submit applications for innovation schools, reform no longer has to come from the top down, but can be initiated by those most intimate with the challenges or those highly experienced in meeting them; and since innovation plans must be developed with a variety of stakeholders, innovation schools will hopefully enjoy broad support and engagement from all directions (above, within, and without).

As with turnaround plans, the eventual success or failure of innovation schools will likely depend on whether workable solutions to the particular problems local school districts face can be identified and implemented by the innovation planners and school leaders. Hopefully, the technical assistance provided by the commissioner and expertise from external partners will provide an open conduit for fresh (and tested) ideas to increase local school capacity for improvement.

In any case, innovation schools and the turnaround plan procedures seem to be a much more reasonable approach to school improvement than the reform recently passed in California (SBX5 4, 2010 Cal. Stat. ch. 3), which includes the "parent trigger" first introduced in the Los Angeles school district. According to the new law, a petition with at least 50% of the parents of a school in corrective action under the No Child Left Behind Act forces the school district to implement one of the four school intervention models described in the Race to the Top regulations (Appendix C, Federal Register, v. 75, n. 221, p. 59828-30):
  • replacing the principal and at least half the staff, inter alia, ("turnaround model"),
  • reopening the school as a charter school or with external management ("restart model"),
  • closing the school altogether, or
  • replacing the principal and instituting a series of guided reforms ("transformation model").
But, beyond the "trigger," the law makes no provision for parent participation or any other stakeholder consultation in planning the subsequent school intervention, which is developed and carried out by the local school district alone. (More discussion about the measure is available here.) In contrast, the Massachusetts reform presents a much more collaborative (and less adversarial) model for school improvement, in which:
  • anyone with a beneficial idea has a platform to present it;
  • parents and other stakeholders participate throughout the planning process;
  • school teachers and administrators are not presented as the enemy;
  • plans are flexible enough to include small, but effective interventions or sweeping changes; and
  • self-evaluation through measurable annual goals and reports plays a prominent role.
I look forward to hearing about the new things to come in Massachusetts schools.

1 comment:

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