Published Online: September 30, 2013
Published in Print: October 2, 2013, as Changing School Culture to Drive Ed. Innovation
Includes correction(s): October 7, 2013

Building a District Culture to Foster Innovation

First graders at Discovery Elementary School in Joint School District No. 2 in Meridian, Idaho, experiment with new technology with the help of Superintendent Linda Clark. The district used federal dollars to give technology grants to teachers with innovative ideas and then held an expo to encourage educators who received the grants to share their experiences with colleagues.
—Glenn Oakley for Education Week

What is the 'secret sauce' in a district's way of operating that allows good ideas to flourish?

In the 13,200-student Albemarle County school district in Virginia, many students spend their summers in “maker spaces,” building spaceships out of cardboard or participating in computer-programming workshops to learn how to code.

Teachers spend big chunks of their time imagining how learning environments can be transformed to improve academic performance, turning in proposals with their ideas to the superintendent.

For her part, Superintendent Pamela R. Moran reaches out to partners in the business community to determine what initiatives can help drive innovation in the district, which encompasses the area outside the city of Charlottesville.

“The factory school model of the 20th century [was] designed to mimic what factories needed in their workers,” Ms. Moran said. “Now, [the workforce] wants kids who can really work through issues to generate solutions that work without being dependent on someone at the top to solve it for them.

“If we don’t change our environment, we’re not going to create workers who can go out and fill the variety of roles that we need.”

Observers say that Albemarle County stands out as a district that thrives on change and innovation, with a willingness to challenge the status quo to build a new type of learning environment for students.

In most school districts around the country, they say, innovation is happening at a painfully slow pace and often only in pockets such as individual classrooms, rarely if ever making the jump to a real, systemwide shift.

The good news is that lessons can be learned from districts that are, indeed, making such a shift.

What is the “secret sauce” in a district’s culture of operation that allows innovation to flourish? And how can those attitudes and approaches be replicated and scaled up in other places?

Those are not easy questions to answer, but education experts agree that there are some similarities across innovative districts that could shed light on how to establish such an education ecosystem. Those factors include strong leadership, empowered teachers and students, an infusion of technology districtwide, the creation of an organization with continuous learning at its core, and the freedom to experiment.

“This is not work that happens overnight,” said Ms. Moran, the Albemarle County superintendent.

'Embrace Continuous Learning'

In 2002, the district’s leadership came together to draft a new vision of the lifelong-learning competencies that students need, which included such skills as being able to plan and conduct research and think critically about problems. That vision has guided the district in a new direction that has opened the door to experimentation and new ways of learning, said Ms. Moran, who has led the district since 2006. Prior to that promotion, she served as an assistant superintendent in the district.

But while she may have a vision for what innovation looks like, it’s important to keep in mind that what works in one school may not work in another, she emphasized.

Building a Culture of Innovation

School leadership experts outline several ways districts should work to create an atmosphere in which good ideas can flourish, including:

• Develop strong leaders who encourage informed risk-taking and experimentation rather than protection of the status quo.

• Establish an expectation of continuous learning and improvement from every person at every level of the organization.

• Craft a clearly defined and articulated vision for the district, and make sure everyone understands it and adheres to it.

• Foster an environment in which people have the power to change course quickly if a project or initiative isn't working.

• Empower everyone in the district, from students to teachers and administrators, to take on leadership roles.

• Ensure a seamless infusion of technology throughout every sector of the district to produce efficiencies and collect meaningful data.

“Whether it’s a teacher in a school or schools in a system, no two are alike,” Ms. Moran said. “If you try to create a cookie-cutter environment, it doesn’t scale.”

Mark A. Edwards is the superintendent of the 5,500-student Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, a district that has become a model for a systemwide digital conversion after rolling out a 1-to-1 program for every 4th through 12th grader, starting in 2008. The district now attracts a steady flow of visitors from all over the country wanting to understand how Mooresville embraces and uses digital innovation to improve teaching and learning.

“For any superintendent or school district that’s really serious about building a foundation for innovation and excellence, everything comes from the culture,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s so important early on to establish an understanding in terms of job responsibility that teachers, principals, office staff, and the board and superintendent need to embrace learning, growing, and evolving, just as digital resources are evolving.”

Although much attention has been paid to the laptop computers that have been provided to students in the district, Mr. Edwards insists that the conversion isn’t about devices.

“Laptops and hardware will never replace teachers,” he said. “The secret to our success in Mooresville has been teachers being vibrant users of digital resources and understanding how to teach and inspire students as they’re using digital resources.”

Linda Clark, the superintendent of Joint School District No. 2 in Meridian, Idaho, seeks to support innovative teachers and practices.
—Glenn Oakley for Education Week

The digital conversion happening in Mooresville has required everyone in the district—including students—to “aggressively embrace continuous learning,” said Mr. Edwards. For instance, educators should continually be working toward their own professional goals and expanding their instructional knowledge, just as students are expected to add continually to their knowledge base.

Such a culture can’t take hold, however, unless a district’s leaders encourage teachers to experiment and assure them that they will not be penalized if they try something new and it fails.

“You have to clearly send signals that mistakes, bumps, and turbulence are part of the landscape. It happens, and it’s OK, and if things don’t go right, that’s normal,” said Mr. Edwards.

In the 36,000-student Joint School District No. 2 in Meridian, Idaho, outside of Boise, Superintendent Linda Clark works to spotlight teachers embracing innovative teaching techniques and support those classrooms with extra funding and other resources.

For instance, many of the teachers in the district were writing grant proposals for classroom sets of technology, so to support them, Ms. Clark hired a grant facilitator in the central office for those teachers to consult.

Her district also set aside federal E-rate dollars to give away as grants to individual teachers to spur classroom innovations through the use of technology.

During the first round of grants, the district gave away more than $80,000 to roughly 40 teachers, said Ms. Clark. Then the district held an expo attended by 900 teachers that allowed those who had received the grants to share what they’d done in their classrooms.

“We’re supporting their efforts when they do them and giving credence to what they’ve done by sharing it with others,” she said.

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But it’s not all up to the teachers, said Ms. Clark. She is constantly scanning the technological horizon for the latest applications and software to see what might be applicable for her teachers and students.

“You have to lead by example,” she said. “You have to empower people and give them the tools to help them.”

And she emphasized that educators should not use new technologies just for the sake of trying them out. Rather, there should be a purpose and a goal for using them, and the effectiveness of those efforts should be closely examined. Depending on what those evaluations find, the district can’t be afraid to change course if something’s not working, Ms. Clark said.

Setting Measurable Goals

For instance, in one pilot, the district distributed hand-held computers to 5th graders, but quickly learned that the devices were better suited for principals than they were for the students. So the district made a quick adjustment, Ms. Clark said, and bought Android devices and distributed them to 5th graders, which encouraged more collaboration between peers.

Karen Cator, the CEO of Digital Promise, a Washington-based nonprofit technology advocacy organization, emphasized the need to connect a district’s technology and innovation initiatives with measurable goals.

“If you don’t know what you’re going to measure, and carefully collect data along the way, you will not have that story to tell six or 18 months later,” said Ms. Cator, a former director of the office educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. That could be a challenge for some efforts that may not have a direct impact on test scores, so it’s important to have those conversations about what defines success before the initiative is rolled out, according to ed-tech experts.

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She also noted that students have a place in pushing a district’s innovative goals forward.

“Young people have different kinds of ideas, and it’s really helpful to understand them, listen carefully, and take it to heart,” Ms. Cator said.

In Albemarle County, for instance, students sit on the district’s tech advisory committee, participate in surveys about the district’s strategic goals, and provide feedback about budget initiatives, virtual learning, and other strategies through a county student advisory committee, said Ms. Moran.

“We see a culture that democratizes the voices of young people in their learning as key,” she said, “and we purposefully build and scaffold our adult work to create that culture.”

Vol. 33, Issue 06, Pages s8,s10

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of students in Joint School District No. 2 outside of Boise, Idaho. The district serves 36,000 students.

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