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6 paths to innovation under ESSA

A new brief outlines how states and ed leaders can focus on change that supports innovation at all levels.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is a marked departure from its much-maligned predecessor, No Child Left Behind, and it puts much more power in states’ hands. Now, a new guide is helping ensure states harness that power to prioritize innovation.

Part of the challenge in sustaining innovation lies in the need for states to go beyond stacking new metrics on existing policies, according to The State Innovator’s Toolkit: A guide to successfully managing innovation under ESSA. Instead, they will have to think differently about what innovation means in their schools and how they can reimagine processes to support such progress.

But because some of NCLB’s structures remain intact under ESSA, states could attempt to innovate but remain stuck in the same cycle. The brief outlines a series of frameworks to help states think about how their systems can successfully manage innovation under ESSA.

Innovation brings risks, and while some education leaders embrace those risks and celebrate the lessons found in failure, other leaders are more hesitant and wish to avoid failure, thus leaving their schools in the same cycles.

(Next page: 4 principles and 6 approaches to innovation)

In the brief, authors Julia Freeland Fisher and Thomas Arnett outline 4 key prinicples to help states and education leaders manage innovation by understanding how existing organizational structures work with or against innovation.

Principle 1: Pursue both sustaining and disruptive innovations
Principle 2: Understand your RFP and its limitations
Principle 3: Deploy tools of cooperation
Principle 4: Organize the right teams to pursue innovation

Fisher and Arnett also describe six approaches states should consider when they think about innovation–three focusing on disruptive innovations under ESSA and three that summarize promising paths to supporting sustaining innovations.

Disruptive innovation:
1. Use Education Innovation and Research grants to address nonconsumption: This grant program is a competitive grant for funding innovative, evidence-based programs designed to improve attainment and achievement among high-need students. Many schools and districts will be tempted to pursue these grants to improve existing programs in their current system. But states and districts can also deploy funds to foster disruptive educational approaches with entirely new business models.

2. Use Direct Student Services grants to create course access programs: States could use these dollars for course access programs, in an effort to ensure that all students have access to high-quality coursework.

3. Authorize preparation academies to rethink teacher preparation models: ESSA’s teacher and school leader preparation academies provision offers another promising opening to rethink the existing business model guiding another aspect of the education system: adult learning.

Sustaining innovation:
4. Design better measures of student success: To encourage ongoing sustaining innovations, states should design their assessment systems to provide schools with regular, low-stakes feedback throughout the school year—rather than provide annual results that come after the time for improvement has passed.

5. Rethink school improvement with the right tools of cooperation: Management tools are insufficient for turning around struggling schools. Thus, in many cases states will need to focus instead on crafting school improvement policies that encourage leaders of struggling schools to exercise either leadership tools or power tools.

6. Identify local circumstances to align schools with the right tools: Leadership tools and power tools can each be effective strategies for school improvement under the right circumstances, respectively. But how can state leaders know when the circumstances are right?

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Laura Ascione

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