Is Innovation Always Good?:
In States, High Performance Is a Better Legislative Focus
Innovation can be defined as a change with as yet unknown results. Educational leaders typically act as if innovation will lead to improvement. Because innovations are experiments, some of them could lead to improvement. The problem is that the public rightly believes educational innovation has become an end in itself. The public wants results, but is being served innovation.
Innovation has its place; but it's not a complete meal. An alternative to relying solely on innovation is to focus on schools that are producing results right now. States could put in place legislation to identify high-performing schools that currently exist and provide incentives and means for other schools to emulate these high-performing schools.
Current education legislation unintentionally undermines the spread of high-performing schools. The shortcomings with current legislation must be fixed. The failure of many school-improvement efforts can be laid at the doorstep of the state legislature. Moreover, other approaches to school improvement, such as increased local control and changing school governance through choice, charters, and vouchers, are likely to lead to disappointment unless the shortcomings are addressed.
Regardless of the level of local control and degree of privatization for schools, most schools will still require information, technical assistance, and incentives to become high-performing schools. A high-performing school is defined by high levels of student results on reliable tests that cover content judged to be important by families and communities. Additional kinds of results, such as accomplishments in family involvement, athletics, music, art, and so forth, can also be used to describe a high-performing school. But there is no substitute for performance on individually taken, reliable tests covering important academic content.
Assistance in becoming a high-performing school must come from effective educators who have worked in a high-performing school. At this time, most state legislatures have some type of accountability mechanism in place, but offer little in the way of help or incentives to schools that aspire to become high-performing. At most, states will bring in "distinguished educators," who themselves may not work at a high-performing school.
State legislation must focus on identifying high-performing schools and using the success of those schools as the primary source for assisting other schools that seek help. The emphasis must shift from prominent educators who have lots of unproven ideas for innovation to effective educators who have produced results in high-performing schools.
We must work to correct the following 15 shortcomings of state-level education legislation that undermine the spread of high-performing schools:
Insufficient support for local schools and districts.
Accountability to families and communities.
Pre-service and in-service training for teachers.
Other state-level responsibilities.
The solution to these legislative shortcomings involves writing legislation that leads educators to learn from high-performing schools. That the identification of replicable high-performing schools must be made based on results of students, not on the reputation of a school for being innovative, cannot be overemphasized. Innovation is not the key; results are the key. Without genuine high-performing schools, education legislation will not be able to produce its sought-after results.
States may need to share information about high-performing schools. Not every state will necessarily have at least one high-performing school in each of the major categories of schools in a state: urban and rural, low- and high-level of wealth, low- and high-prevalence of limited-English-speaking students, and so forth.
Legislators need to examine the laws in their state to determine how the current legislation motivates and enables educators to emulate success. Educators and families who want to improve their schools need support. The support does not require micromanaging schools or districts. (Legislatures should never mandate specific teaching practices, for example.) But what parents and educators alike do need are laws to promote and assist rational thinking and planning. In this regard, each of the 15 points I have listed has a direct implication for legislation.