Innovation Schools: A Bold Strategy for Choice and Improvement
The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 was heralded as the most powerful education reform legislation since the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 and with good reason. The much celebrated bill provided powerful new tools to accelerate school turnaround efforts while doubling the spending cap for charter schools in communities where students have the greatest needs. We are proud that this is the first charter cap lift in a decade. But, to me, the most dynamic but least noticed feature of the Achievement Gap bill was the provision authorizing the landmark Innovation Schools.
Innovation Schools operate as in-district, charter-like, autonomous, public schools which can tailor curriculum, instruction, schedule, budget and staffing to meet better the needs of their students. Conceived as a vehicle for enabling mainstream schools to be bold and highly competitive, Innovation Schools are developed and authorized at the local level.
Innovation Schools provide a truly unique opportunity for teachers, community partners, higher education, parents, unions and business leaders to throw off the constraints of bureaucracy and develop strategies and curricula that work more effectively for particular students and faculty. Innovation Schools offer communities the chance to creatively respond to the education challenges of the 21 st century through a new, more flexible delivery system of autonomous, public schools. As President Obama has said, our future will depend on our capacity to innovate and educate. Innovation Schools are an instrument to do both from within our current education system.
We hear a fair amount of complaining about charter schools from traditional school educators. Some of these complaints, such as the loss of revenues, are legitimate and heartfelt. At the same time, we know mainstream schools can be creative, innovative and customer responsive just like the best charter schools. With the advent of Innovation Schools, mainstream educators now have a chance to prove that mainstream schools can offer true choices and favorably compete with the best of the best charters. The winners in this competition: students, their families and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Teachers can also be big winners as Innovation Schools provide educators the opportunity to take control of vital decisions on key matters like curriculum, length of school day, professional development and student discipline. Rather than be rank and file providers in a top down system, teachers can use Innovation Schools to take charge and assume educational leadership. Teachers or other school designers can propose to waive district rules and contract provisions in order to deepen instruction in core subjects, introduce a theme, like STEM education, add various enrichment activities or manage school space and time in distinctively different ways. In this model, schools, like universities, come to be a reflection of the combined experience and wisdom of the faculty. What a dramatic change for K-12 education!
Our inside-out/outside-in strategy for innovation and improvement features Innovation Schools coupled with our "smart cap lift," which enables top charters to grow. These major departures in public education policy position Massachusetts to see a renaissance of innovation and choice.
In the end, our work in education focuses on closing achievement gaps by strengthening public education to respond to the realities and needs of our 21 st century world and students. Our old factory model of mass produced education is leaving too many children behind. Educators and parents need a much more responsive education system in order to better meet the needs of our widely diverse students. If we are to have all students meet our world class standards, we need a school system which will recognize their differences and give each child what he or she needs to meet high expectations. Only with such a hybrid education delivery system do we have any hope of getting all our students to proficiency.
Paul Reville is Massachusetts Secretary of Education.