A policy playbook for school innovation, given continued struggles for students

A policy playbook for school innovation, given continued struggles for students

As educators, policymakers, and the media fret that the unprecedented levels of federal investment in our nation’s schools during the pandemic haven’t had the impact that they had hoped on helping students rebound, some have asked how policy can help schools rethink and reinvent schooling rather than stick with the status quo.

Bearing in mind the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Rick Hess’s adage that “policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do those things well,” there are a variety of ways to categorize policies that attempt to spark novel schooling arrangements. Here’s one taxonomy that I’ve created to distinguish different policies designed to support and foster innovation in education: permission granting, changing what’s valued, infrastructure development, and research and development.

Permission granting

Permission granting is the first type of policy, which ranges from regulations allowing individuals or organizations to obtain waivers from existing statutes to specific policies that create more operational flexibility. This grants educators the flexibility to innovate and pursue ideas that may not have been possible otherwise. As an example, all 50 states now allow schools to move beyond measuring seat time.

Yet, few schools have moved to mastery-, or competency-based, learning models. That’s because, as I’ve written, waivers help far less than most policymakers believe. That’s the case for a variety of reasons. Waivers often aren’t comprehensive, for example. And the resources and processes underlying all mature organizations—the schools and districts themselves—tend to be much more stubborn and ingrained such that creating flexibility alone won’t lead to much change.

As a result, until regulators create frameworks where innovation in pursuit of student outcomes is the default and doesn’t require permission, don’t expect a sea change from waivers.

Until regulators create frameworks where innovation in pursuit of student outcomes is the default and doesn’t require permission, don’t expect a sea change from waivers.

Changing what’s valued

That leads to the second bucket of policies to promote innovation: changing what’s valued. This entails altering the incentives within the education system—or changing the rules of the game—by redefining what is valued and rewarded.

For example, instead of paying for attendance, policies in this category might shift to measuring and then paying for learning growth and mastery of learning outcomes. Educational choice policies that allow for new entrants on the supply side and empower families on the demand side would likely fall under this bucket, as would policies that change how and what learning is measured.

Key to these sorts of policies working is to not just change what the government funds and rewards, but also to free up the inputs and allow schools much more operational flexibility to meet the desired outcomes. People often think about this set of policies as being those that change the underlying conditions under which schools operate.

Infrastructure development

A third category of policy focuses on infrastructure development. This involves investing in the underlying structures that contain value, which could pave the way for new innovations. For example, funding broadband infrastructure or providing computers in schools can ensure that educators have new resources with which to innovate.

But what we often see, as I’ve written, is that the operating models inside mature organizations tend to co-opt the infrastructure. As a result, the infrastructure investments often meet the organization’s existing needs, rather than result in novel practices that transform teaching and learning. We call this practice “cramming”—and it results in incremental innovations in the best of scenarios.

Research and development

To use infrastructure in novel ways requires new learning models and advances in teaching and learning. This is where the fourth category of policy enters the equation: research and development. Funding research and development can support the creation of a range of innovations—from incremental to transformational. But in the most far-reaching of cases, it includes the funding of the creation and research of novel learning models themselves, as the report Out of the Box recommends. If paired with bigger changes in the rules of the game—what’s valued—then it’s not hard to imagine the new models that successfully deliver on the desired outcomes gaining deeper traction in the contexts where they could be most useful.

Mandating inputs

In one incarnation, this research and development could also result in a fifth category of policymaking: mandating inputs. For example, policymakers could simply decide to fund specific school designs or educational models—thereby picking the winners and creating one-off school models rather than something more transformational, for example.

Although specifying inputs can be used to drive the adoption of evidence-based practices that haven’t been done widely before—see the number of states banning certain curricula at odds with the “science of reading,” for example, or the use of these policies to fund certain professional development and other supports to drive change—this is where Hess’s adage enters the equation. It’s not hard to mandate certain practices, but it doesn’t mean people will do those practices well. Often the result is a compliance, check-the-box mentality, as mandating inputs restricts innovation.

* * *

Policymakers and regulators ultimately have a range of options when it comes to creating policies that promote innovation in education. By understanding the different types of policies available and their likely impacts on schooling, policymakers can braid them together to maximize the odds of supporting educators in rethinking schooling.

This post was originally published on Forbes here.

The post A policy playbook for school innovation, given continued struggles for students appeared first on Christensen Institute.