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Massachusetts Innovation Schools Expand, But Colorado Needs to Take a Close Look

(H/T Adam Emerson, RedefinED) From yesterday’s Boston Globe, the innovation school idea is starting to take off in Massachusetts:

“It’s really catching fire,’’ said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary. “I would predict innovation schools in a relatively short period of time could surpass the number of charter schools in the state if the growth continues at the rate we’ve seen recently.’’ …

Innovation schools and the state’s 56 independently run charter schools are similar in that decisions about curriculum, staffing, and budgeting are made by a school-based governing board with the goal of crafting programs that meet the specific needs of their students.

But unlike charter schools, which report directly to the state, innovation schools must negotiate the extent of the freedom to make their own decisions with the superintendent and School Committee, and are bound by most provisions of the district’s teachers union contract.

Now I’ll be honest with you. Other than sharing the same name and some of the basic features as provided in this article, I don’t know precisely how Massachusetts innovation school policy compares with its Colorado counterpart.

But the timing of the article was perfect, given a thoughtful new Ed News Colorado blog piece by Peter Huidekoper. The author makes a strong case that our state’s Innovation Schools Act has not fulfilled its promise. Huidekoper’s posting is based on his recent interview with Rob Stein, former principal of Denver’s Manual High School, one of the state’s first “innovation schools.” Among the real and possible problems identified that may limit the law’s effectiveness:

  • A reticent K-12 education culture that has embraced the innovation school process somewhat in Denver, but very little around the state;
  • Conversely, an application process that may make it too easy to obtain innovation status;
  • Innovation school principals remain employees of the district, bringing more confusion than clarity to the school’s mission and direction; and, on a related note,
  • Ambiguities concerning who is in charge of the school, leading to tensions in Denver that still remain unresolved more than a year after I brought the topic to your attention. (“[Stein] now says that the lack of clarity on how much authority the school and principal have with the Innovation status makes ‘charters a better model. They have worked out the kinks.’”)

Let me be clear: I believe there is still a place for the Innovation Schools Act. But 1) it may be time for lawmakers to look seriously at how the rough edges of the law can be fixed and improved, and 2) it should never, NEVER be seen as a tool to supplant charter schools. In which case, the Massachusetts’ education secretary’s quote you read at the beginning of this post could be seen as a red flag warning.

Huidekoper’s piece offers some great reminders: Do all our education reform ideas come to fruition as we planned them? Are we content to compare our education reform plans with the status quo, or are we at all interested in looking for ways to make them better? The challenge lives on.