In recent conversations, educators and state policymakers have expressed shock to me that district schools aren’t innovating more. With microschools growing and test scores floundering, why aren’t districts seeking permission to reinvent themselves?
As evidence of the opportunities to innovate, many bureaucrats and think tanks point to the vast number of waivers that states offer. The opportunities to move beyond traditional structures and processes do exist, the argument goes.
Yet waivers help far less than most policymakers believe. 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.
Public schools today operate under a morass of policies, regulations, and contractual requirements at the local, state, and federal level. These policies often dictate the resources and processes—or inputs—a school may use to teach students.
These inputs range from things like the number of minutes students are required to be in school each year to student-to-teacher ratios and the credentials teachers must possess. The problem is that none of these policies equate to learning outcomes.
To take one example, think of the student who masters the material in a math course within half a year. Does the requirement that they sit in a course for a full year benefit them? What about for the student who needs more time?
Rather than support learning, inputs lock a system into a set way of doing things and inhibit innovation. Focusing on outcomes, on the other hand, encourages continuous improvement toward a set of overall goals without constraining how a school achieves them.
To get around these burdensome regulations, many states have created waivers—the ability for districts to apply for relief from certain policies that constrain their ability to innovate. Some of the more popular waivers lift seat-time requirements.
In Michigan, for example, there are different waivers to which a district can apply for permission to operate different kinds of “innovative” programs that escape the traditional seat-time requirements. The waivers must be valid for the current school year.
And yet, policymakers moan that all-too-often, despite all the waivers, schools aren’t taking advantage of them. So what gives? Is it that schools really don’t want to do things differently? Although there’s some truth to that, it’s not the whole truth.
First, although states have created many waivers from policies, these waivers typically aren’t comprehensive. That is, while they clear some barriers out of the way, they don’t clear out other demands and requirements or change how schools are funded.
As a result, a waiver may not allow a school nearly as much freedom as a well-intentioned bureaucrat in a state’s department of education or a legislator thinks it’s giving them. That often means that after receiving a waiver, innovation halts in its tracks.
Second, transforming a legacy school model that has done things relatively the same way for decades takes a lot of dedicated work from many individuals. There’s a reason why organizations—in business and public education—struggle to reinvent themselves.
Research shows the only way an organization can truly reinvent itself is to launch a separate organization that has the autonomy to rethink its value proposition, resources, processes, and financial formula.
This takes significant effort in schools, as these autonomous efforts typically take the form of things like launching brand-new schools or operating a school within a school, a microschool, or a learning pod.
The Kettle Moraine School District in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, for example, authorized three charter schools on its high school campus and one at one of its elementary schools to implement a mastery-based learning model. That level of innovation was challenging to sustain within the traditional operations and pressures of a district.
School districts have limited capacity and capabilities to begin with. For a state to offer relief from restrictive policies and regulations through a set of waivers adds more effort and complexity to what’s already a heavy lift.
Some states are trying to tackle this by streamlining the process for waivers. Rather than submit an application for every single waiver a district needs, for example, the district can submit one application for all the waivers it needs.
Certain state departments of education also provide support to inform districts about the waivers available and help them write the applications.
South Carolina, for example, does both. It offers a set of more streamlined waivers for everything from “schools of innovation” to “competency-based education.” Districts that qualify then receive relief from specific statutes and regulations that pertain to the specific waiver. The state also helps districts apply for the waivers.
But none of these efforts reduce the work of innovation itself. And that speaks to the bigger problem.
Innovation to help students make progress should be the default, not an act of permission granting from bureaucrats. After all, if a new idea doesn’t help students, then it may be inventive, but it’s not innovation.
Michael Horn is an executive editor of Education Next, co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and author of From Reopen to Reinvent.