Is Innovation Always Good?: In States, High Performance Is a Better Legislative Focus

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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.

  • Teachers, administrators, and school board members are not given information about replicable high-performing schools based on academic results.

  • Teachers, administrators, and school board members are not offered substantive help if they choose to emulate replicable high-performing schools.
  • Teachers, administrators, and school board members are not provided with specific descriptions of reasonable, yet high expectations for students based on results from replicable high-performing schools in a comparable community.
  • High-performing schools are not rewarded through state funding. Key educators from those schools are not routinely appointed to commissions and panels dealing with certification, teacher preparation, professional development, textbook selection, and so forth.
  • Districts, when selecting textbooks and other educational tools, are not given information about the types of results each tool has produced with different types of students at different levels of implementation.
  • Teachers, administrators, and board members do not receive high-quality and useful information from replicable high-performing schools about how best to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities, children of poverty, and students for whom English is a second language.

    Accountability to families and communities.

    • Families and the community are not given information about high yet reasonable expectations for achievement (for example, information based on the achievement of students in replicable high-performing schools comparable to the community's school).
    • Should achievement fall substantially short of those expectations, districts are not required to give to families and the community information about what educational practices from high-performing schools are available, what actions are being planned and implemented by the local school to improve results, and what recourse families and the community have if plans are inadequate or if progress is unsatisfactory.

    Pre-service and in-service training for teachers.

    • Teacher-certification requirements are not guided by educators from replicable high-performing schools.
    • Teacher-education requirements are not guided by educators from replicable high-performing schools.
    • Professional-development planning and funding are not guided by educators from replicable high-performing schools.

    Other state-level responsibilities.

    • In some states, the integrity and independence of the state assessment program is not insured because either the priorities of families do not play a role in determining the content, or the test or other forms of assessment (portfolios, performance tasks, and so on) are not technically sound, or the establishment of passing criteria and other potentially sensitive political issues are not housed in some type of quasi-independent agency beyond political influence.
    • The state department and regional service centers are not held accountable for the quality and usefulness of the information and services related to their work in local schools, in the selection of educational tools such as textbooks, or in areas related to teacher certification, teacher preparation, and so forth.
    • States do not determine the financial costs and systemic barriers that must be overcome to transform an average- or low-performing school that seeks to become a high-performing school. Legislative demands for school improvement should be consistent with the funding and bureaucratic relief provided for improvement.

    Legislatures are not held accountable for the quality of the implementation of new education legislation. Provisions to require action to remedy deficiencies in the implementation are not included in legislation.

    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.

    Vol. 14, Issue 32, Pages 40, 43

    Published in Print: May 3, 1995, as Is Innovation Always Good?: In States, High Performance Is a Better Legislative Focus
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