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Holyoke’s Pursuit of Innovation Status Raises Real Questions to Answer

Among the big people around me, there’s a fair amount of cheering and groaning and Monday morning quarterbacking. Apparently, that’s what the day after a primary election does to you. I’ll leave the politics to them, and spend just a few moments on an interesting story that slipped in last week.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Kate Schimel reports that a second rural Eastern Plains school district is taking a serious look at applying for innovation status. In a nutshell, Holyoke district leaders would draft a plan requesting waivers from specific state laws that they believe are holding them back, and would come to the State Board of Education for a nod of approval.

The 2008 Innovation Schools Act was primarily designed for high-need urban (read: Denver) schools. About two-thirds of the state’s innovation schools are in fact in Denver. The freedom to innovate does not guarantee success. Challenges remain for schools that pursue and adopt the status, and overall the academic track record has been mixed.

But as Chalkbeat highlights, rural districts pursuing innovation status are looking to utilize the law for somewhat different purposes:

The sole prior precedent for Holyoke’ [sic] actions comes from another small rural school district, Kit Carson, in southeastern Colorado. Kit Carson’s superintendent applied for waivers from the state’s 2010 educator evaluation law, including reducing the frequency of evaluations and extending teacher contracts beyond a year. At the time, the plan won approval from Sen. Mike Johnston, a reform advocate and a key player in passing the evaluation law.

“I don’t think it’s a scenario we’re very likely to see again,” Johnston told Chalkbeat Colorado at the time. The state board approved Kit Carson’s innovation status, four to one.

Hard to believe it’s been more than three years (when I was still 5) that Kit Carson secured approval for its plan on a 6-1 State Board vote. Clearly, Gerald Keefe and company were ahead of the curve.

In the Chalkbeat story, Holyoke superintendent Bret Miles is careful not to bash the new evaluation system under Senate Bill 191, a well-intentioned law with uneven consequences. Instead, he says some of the provisions just don’t apply in the context of his community, which straddles the Nebraska border. With full-scale SB 191 implementation now a year away, will we be seeing more districts line up in Holyoke’s shadow?

Not so fast. Schimel speculates that the northeastern Colorado district may have a tougher time, given its leader’s stated interest in wanting not to be bound by a key requirement that student growth scores have to count in teacher evaluations. He told Chalkbeat that the measure is redundant because in a small district people can look at the TCAP test scores and already see how teachers are doing.

The tacit admission that citizens believe teachers have an impact on student test scores (a bit oversimplified for the actual application) raises more questions than it answers:

  • Why not include the student growth half of the evaluation, if it’s just seen as redundant?
  • What has happened to previous non-probationary Holyoke teachers with poor track records of student outcomes?
  • If all of the district’s teachers already are effective, what’s the problem in aligning the more subjective part of the evaluation with the multiple measures of student academic growth?
  • Is the request also driven by a rural district’s concern that it’s already hard and expensive enough to attract quality teachers to serve in their location?

Innovation presents a great opportunity but isn’t necessarily a solution in all cases. I look forward to hearing these questions and more answered if and when the request moves forward.