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Supporting Innovation: Lessons Learned and Next Steps

• Karla Phillips


For educators and policymakers seeking to innovate new student-centered approaches to learning, the recent report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education reveals just how difficult that work can be.

While it’s observations are sobering, Personalized Learning at a Crossroads: Early Lessons from the Next Generation Systems Initiative and the Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools Initiative mirrors ExcelinEd’s experiences with state partners striving to catalyze and scale new instructional models. The report’s primary observation is that the education systems encompassing public school districts are not designed for innovation.

And I believe the same is true at the state level. While much of the report focused on what CRPE observed in classrooms and gleaned through teacher interviews, it has much broader implications for innovation that should help guide policy development, regardless of the unique model schools are implementing.

Even the most progressive education leaders recognize that current education systems are primarily compliance-driven—they ensure appropriate implementation of law, rules and regulations. This report points out that administrations are also designed to facilitate the implementation of best practices.  This wouldn’t be bad if personalized learning were a well-defined five-step program, but it’s not. Innovative models like personalized learning are, by definition, new and untested. By extension, to support these innovative instructional models, innovative administrative and support models will also be necessary.

One recommendation from Personalized Learning at a Crossroads is already growing in popularity: school districts’ participation in formal networks to leverage expertise and build momentum for innovative, student-centered models. The report notes the following:

Building internal networks is another way districts can facilitate aggregation and disseminate innovations. For example, instructional unit design teams in one district we visited created a forum across schools for teachers to not only share the activities and practices they found to be effective in their classroom, but also to collaborate on the design, implementation, and revision of personalized learning units.

At ExcelinEd, we realized the same was true for state-level staff charged with the administration of innovation programs and pilots. They would also benefit tremendously from networking to leverage expertise. Last year we began organizing convenings of key state staff to explore common problems, brainstorm ideas and share best practices. In fact, we have already begun to tackle some of the very issues CRPE observed.

For instance, how should states best maximize opportunities to provide flexibility? How can state departments of education make flexibility and support for innovation an agency-wide goal and not something that is confined to just the handful of administrators assigned to the project?

The report found that “at the district level, most central offices responded to personalized learning by granting schools waivers and exceptions rather than changing the system to support new approaches.” The truth is the states have done the same.

States have been creating innovation zones, pilot programs and waivers to identify the barriers that stand in the way of educators—but very rarely have they gone back and evaluated the requests or their outcomes. Just as CRPE found at the local level, the states we are working with would agree that states need to better communicate the flexibility that is available, facilitate its usage and create feedback loops to state policymakers.

As momentum for personalized learning and other innovative, student-centered models increases we should heed the author’s cautionary message:

[The problem is] that we have tried to layer a very ambitious redesign of classroom instruction and schools on a system that was not designed to guide and support innovation. Our current public education system is not intentionally hostile to effective innovation, but the existing structures, policies, and traditions work against it at every turn.

How to best support and implement personalized learning might not be the question we should be asking. Rather, what types of systems, policies and supports are necessary for schools to successfully transition away from the traditional one-size-fits-all model. And this is ExcelinEd’s commitment, to support state’s efforts to tackle these questions and be prepared to change course—frequently.

About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.