Special Report
School & District Management

Innovation Offices Pop Up in State Education Agencies

By Sean Cavanagh — March 05, 2012 4 min read

David Cook’s job is to look for new ideas in education—and to nurture them.

Mr. Cook directs Kentucky’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement, one of a number of new offices within state departments of education designed to spawn innovations in school policy. Those new approaches focus on turning around low-performing schools, improving teacher quality, expanding online learning, and other policy goals, many of which transcend the assigned duties of any single office or division within existing state agencies.

Supporters of the offices see them as vehicles to lead education agencies beyond their traditional focus on service and compliance toward working as laboratories for ideas and the sharing of information across districts.

“The fun of my job is that I get to deal with a lot of new things in an incubator and try to grow them—possibly grow them across the state,” Mr. Cook explained. His message to districts is “tell us what you want to do,” he said, “and let us help you do it.”

Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oregon have offices to promote innovation, though they have different titles and duties, and other states are considering creating them. Chris Minnich, the senior membership director for the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, predicts more states will add school innovation offices in the next few years, as they grapple with new approaches to delivering education and turning around struggling schools.

“You give people the space and the permission to do something different, and then try to scale up after that,” Mr. Minnich said. “This is changing the way we do business, and that’s hard.”

In Kentucky, Mr. Cook’s office, which was created in 2010, has been asked to help districts come up with fixes to problems that have bedeviled them for years. One example is its work on what he dubs “the snowbound pilot.”

For years, school districts in the eastern, Appalachian part of Kentucky have been routinely forced to cancel three to four weeks of school per year because of heavy snows, which choke roadways that wind through the mountainous region or wash them out. Those disruptions have made it difficult if not impossible for many students to make it to class, setting them back academically.

Three districts— the Letcher, Owsley, and Powell county school systems—proposed a series of solutions, and Mr. Cook’s office helped implement them. The districts arranged new online education options, so that teachers could provide more assignments to students if they couldn’t make it to school. For students who don’t have Internet access—a common problem in the region—the districts arranged to keep more of their buildings open during bad weather so that the students who could reach them could work there. And the districts arranged to have more take-home lessons for students, in advance of bad weather.

At the request of state Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday, state legislators changed a law to give the districts greater flexibility to educate students through alternate means, including virtual lessons. Six additional districts joined the pilot program in the 2011-2012 year.

Testing New Ideas

Mr. Cook’s division was created at the direction of the state commissioner as part of a reorganization of the Kentucky Department of Education. The office currently has 12 employees. In addition to the rural schools project, its other efforts include overseeing a pilot program to give schools more flexibility in how they award academic credit, beyond simply counting “seat-time” in school, and another project to restructure high schools and give students more academic options, such as taking college classes early.

Will those efforts go statewide? Mr. Cook said it’s too early to say. State officials will need a few years to evaluate what’s worked and what hasn’t.

In Louisiana, the Department of Education’s office of innovation was originally proposed in the state’s Race to the Top application, and it went forward even though the state didn’t win the federal competition. So far the office, which has a yearly budget of $20 million after absorbing some other divisions’ duties, has focused on issues such as improving low-performing schools; recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and other employees; and implementing a state system for evaluating teachers and administrators, among other duties.

One of its projects, the “Trailblazer Initiative,” gives a group of more than 30 districts access to specialized state support and resources and tools to collaborate with one another. The office also oversees an “educator pipeline,” or service to help Louisiana districts attract teaching talent, particularly to rural areas and in high-need subjects.

There has been a strong demand for the range of services the state is offering, said Gayle Sloan, a district support officer for the office. But it has also faced challenges, she said, such as trying to coordinate services for districts that require various divisions of the Louisiana Education Department to work together.

“We have a lot of spokes in the wheel that are used to operating independently of each other,” Ms. Sloan said.

Of course, policies branded as “innovation” in some states may be regarded by critics as misguided or ineffective, acknowledged Mr. Minnich, of the CCSSO. But state officials today are eager to experiment, particularly as they attempt to make use of new ideas in standards, testing, teacher training, online education, and other areas.

“The challenge is to get this innovation to become mainstream,” he said. An overriding goal, he said, is for state agencies to pursue breakthroughs in all the work they do, so that someday, “these offices of innovation won’t be needed anymore.”

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Innovation Offices Pop Up in State Education Agencies

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