Innovate or Die

By: Robin Lake
This first appeared on the Center for Reinventing Public Eduction’s blog.
A few weeks ago, after I gave a presentation on the opportunities and challenges of the portfolio model, a charter school proponent asked me, “Robin, do you really believe districts can innovate?”
Certainly not under the current governance model, which is actually hostile to innovation. By innovation, I’m not talking about buying everyone iPads and Smart Boards. I’m talking about committing to an ongoing problem-solving disposition, and relentlessly hunting down the most promising new ideas—no matter their source—for addressing learning challenges. True innovation means seeking out evidence-based solutions and adapting quickly. It means facilitating proven solutions at scale rather than one-off programs or schools.
That’s simply not possible in traditional school districts, where finance systems dictate spending based on set staffing models and class sizes, which prevent schools from experimenting with more productive uses of teachers and new student grouping strategies. Accountability systems can discourage risk-taking and diverse approaches to instruction by penalizing schools for any short-term drops in test scores. Rigid internal regulations and processes (such as procurement) make it hard to try anything new. Salary structures and work rules assign people to a school regardless of whether they believe in its approach. While no single one of these factors by itself kills innovation, the sum is a self-limiting, regulated environment that discourages experimentation with new ways to serve students.
Districts will never be capable of innovating if they don’t fundamentally restructure and downsize central offices. They won’t be capable of innovating without closing dysfunctional schools and creating new schools; without partnering with charter schools, which have the flexibility and focus that district-run schools lack; and without committing to continually assessing what works and adjusting course quickly.
For the first time ever, many large urban districts are making sincere attempts at these changes. New York City is perhaps the best example. The district is working with hundreds of schools to adopt the most promising programs and school designs, hoping to ensure that instruction is highly personalized and aligned to world-class standards. The NYC DOE is actively engaged in nimble partnerships with technology providers and is working with top researchers to document and replicate what works. The League of Innovative Schools, a coalition of 32 school districts organized by Digital Promise, is trying to implement a range of blended learning models. And both Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have recently announced major new initiatives to support innovative new school designs within districts.
As promising as such efforts are, there are real challenges ahead. In CRPE’s work supporting implementation, we see central office staff struggling to come to terms with what it means to give schools real control over their education program and operations, and to hold schools accountable mainly for performance, rather than compliance with rules. Districts often inadvertently undermine partnerships with entrepreneurs by maintaining slow and rigid procurement policies and risk-averse central office cultures.
The reality is, turning around a large public institution that was built for another purpose is, as Cleveland’s CEO Eric Gordon has said, like building a ship while sailing it. It requires intense focus, smart strategic and political action, and sometimes a kamikaze attitude. And for an urban superintendent, all of this has to happen within the span of just a few years and in a way that can’t be undone with the next leadership regime.
CRPE is working hard to facilitate that work by conducting research on district’s efforts to become innovation friendly. We are offering districts support based on what we learn, and evaluating the outcomes. We believe that some districts can pull this off and others won’t. At least for some cities, district-run portfolios may offer an advantage over all-charter systems. But like my friend the skeptic, we—along with policymakers, funders, and charter school advocates—will be watching for quick and meaningful results.
Robin Lake (@RbnLake) is Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, and is nationally recognized for her research and analysis of U.S. public school system reforms, including charter schools and charter management organizations, innovation and scale, portfolio school districts, school turnaround efforts, and performance-based accountability systems.

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1 Comment

Mary Miller

It is not only urban districts that display the need to innovate and struggle with the stumbling blocks described here. Midsize and small districts face the same challenges with less access to high quality resources and leadership.
As a practitioner turned innovator, I have experienced first hand the difficulty changing the norm in urban, midsize and small districts. However, the difficulty has not been with teachers or even principals. The difficulty in sustaining the changes at scale came from political and administrative decisions having nothing to do with student performance gains.
Putting knowledgeable and experienced partners in schools and districts results in the personal respect and trust needed to bring along change. (See Atul Gawande's article in the Atlantic magazine about complex change.) I have seen it happen in many existing public schools and districts. Several have been able to hang on despite political and administrative pressures. Others have either compromised a successful program or abandoned it altogether.

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