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:
- school schedule and calendar,
- staffing policies and procedures,
- school district policies and procedures, and
- professional development.
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.
- 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 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.
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").
- 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.