The obvious lesson for innovation schools

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Two-and-a-half years have passed since the passage of the reform law (“An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap”) that will, over time, double the number of charter school students and established a new category of in-district reform called innovation schools.

(The law also made virtual schools possible, but the state’s department of education decided two years ago to tie a few regulatory double-knots on that type of reform, as I’ve blogged here and here.)

In districts where MCAS scores lagged in the bottom 10 percent statewide, the cap on the number of number of students who could attend charter schools was doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent. We saw an increase of 16 charter schools in year one and 3 charters in year two.

What about “innovation schools”? That is the reform that most interests the state ed department. Anecdotally, a number of localities have shared that the state’s ed department has reached out to them talking about how they could either see a charter established outside the district’s control or, if they wanted to avoid that eventuality, well, they could start an innovation school.

Given that districts are almost maniacally concerned about keeping education funds under the control of the district (rather than focusing on what will give kids the best outcomes), the calculus for them is pretty clear.

But will innovation schools work? And, more importantly, what happens if they don’t?

That’s not a negative spin on the innovation schools, but rather the right question to ask. After all, innovation school plans, like charter plans, like any effort started with the best of will to change a school, are not guaranteed success. But in the case of charter schools, there is a clear path to shutting the ones down that are not working. Even somewhat early in its five-year charter, a poorly performing charter school can be put on probation. If the charter proves unworthy of renewal by the end of its five-year term, the charter will be shut down.

It’s an especially good question to ask because there are empirical and common sense reasons to wonder about the efficacy of in-district reform models.

Empirically, we’ve seen a number of charter-lite “new school” reforms, from pilot schools to Commonwealth pilot schools to the unionized Horace Mann charter schools, all of which are in-district reform efforts. They have not even come close to the performance of Commonwealth charter schools in Massachusetts.

Then there’s common sense. The Achievement Gap statute spends an inordinate number of words and provisions (in Section 92 of the law, subsections (a) through (m) all define the various processes that innovation schools have to go through in order to constitute a school. Even proposals that truly are innovative will have lost any tinge of “cutting-edge” intent by the time they make their way through the gauntlet of community, special interest, constituent, and status quo-lover groups that have to give an innovation school its blessing. Common sense also suggests very strongly that when a statute spends page after page describing just what “innovation” is, it’s not innovation.

Then there is Section 92 (n), which provides the only real input on assessing and holding accountable these new “innovation” schools. And what kind of accountability system does it call for? Basically, there is a requirement that the superintendent must perform an annual evaluation and follow-up with the school committee to share the results of the evaluation. If the school committee then finds that 1 or more goals have not been met, they proceed with an amendment process to “reasonably modify” the original innovation plan (the original proposal with statement of purpose, discussion of budget/admin/curriculum, etc.).

So what happens if, still, student outcomes have not improved substantially? If the superintendent and school committee conclude that there are multiple failures to deliver on the innovation plan, there are three degrees of action.

(i) limit 1 or more components of the innovation plan;
(ii) suspend 1 or more components of the innovation plan; or
(iii) terminate the authorization of the school; provided, however, that the limitation or suspension shall not take place before the completion of the second full year of the operation of the school and the termination shall not take place before the completion of the third full year of the operation of the school.

OK, so the school is “terminated.” But what does that mean in practice? Does the principal or do the teachers put their jobs at risk? Does the school get put out as a charter school?

Not at all. What will happen is that the school loses its status as an “innovation school” and reverts to being a district school. That’s not what happens to charters and it’s not enough to create a sense of urgency.

Section 92 starts out with much promise noting that “An Innovation School shall be a public school, operating within a public school district,that is established for the purpose of improving school performance and student achievement through increased autonomy and flexibility.”

While it is leading to a number of experiments, I fear that without an explicit hard-nosed accountability component to the law, there is little reason to believe that the level of urgency to deliver reform will not come to fruition. The state legislature should put in place the same accountability measures for innovation schools as exist for charter schools – essentially, if the schools don’t work, shut them down.

Twenty years ago, when the Education Reform Act was passed, one of the basic ideas was that district schools would draw lessons from charter schools and incorporate them into their own reforms. Why is it that no one ever talks about having district schools emulate the accountability piece of charters’ success?

I know. It was a rhetorical question.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.