Innovation Starts With Having Autonomy

Innovation in education is not going to happen in the "top-down" model currently being overly encouraged and even enforced on teachers and schools.
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One of the most infuriating aspects of the discussion about education reform or change has been that there really hasn't been a discussion. Money and power have trumped experience for far too many years now with the media and the U.S. Department of Education rushing uncritically to get every quote and opinion from billionaires and politicians, while worse helping them label anyone with an opposing or experienced opinion as being for the "status quo" or not having the best interests of children in mind.

Media is often behind on issues like this and rush to celebrities for opinions because it is easier and cheaper than actually digging and asking the hard questions. That seems to have changed recently with the testing and data collecting scandals, and the failure of vouchers and corporate model charter schools to "fix" education. And note I am not at all against charter schools, in fact I am a full-time public school district teacher and I sit on the board of a local charter school. The charter school concept has been hijacked by some with money to push a very narrow model that has unfortunately poisoned the charter school concept in many peoples' minds.

Perhaps, though, the biggest stretch of the facts that "reformers," including the Department of Education for over ten years, have successfully foisted on society has been that their methods are models of "innovation." I'm generalizing here some, but typically the models for education they promote look like school has for well over a hundred years. Sit kids in rows, sit up straight, be quiet, memorize facts, stick to a readin', 'riting, 'rithmetic type of narrow curriculum and so on. And there might be a small percentage of students that that would help, much the same as "boot camp" style schools for troubled youth end up helping some, but that doesn't make them the right fit for every child, and it certainly doesn't make them "innovative."

One thing the current "reformers" have right is that we should be innovating. We should be learning from innovative teachers, schools, programs and countries already showing success, as well as promoting real innovation through our policies and investments. Currently "Race to the Top" makes it very difficult to really innovate because it demands conditions that support too narrow an approach. It actually stifles true innovation.

Innovation in education is not going to happen in the "top-down" model currently being overly encouraged and even enforced on teachers and schools. Teachers and other experienced educators should be driving innovation, but they are being shackled with programs, requirements and "we know better" than you attitudes. By the way this also makes it more difficult to hold teachers accountable, because teachers are learning to embrace "programs" because then any failure (if I've followed the program) is mostly the program's fault. If we give teachers the responsibility, the time and most importantly the autonomy to design, implement, evaluate, tweak and improve their pedagogy and curriculum, that is when we will really see innovation happen.

When Finland saw its schools failing 10+ years ago they did not go to a "no excuses" test everything approach. They didn't fire teachers and blame teachers. They gave teachers the responsibility and the support to change their schools. Teachers took on their professional development, training and peer review, and the school administration was there to help get the resources and time to make it happen. They turned our current top/down model on its head and transformed their schools. Administration is there to support what teachers and students require to learn instead of telling them what to do. Yes, we are not Finland, and yes, we have issues they do not, but that shouldn't change the basic approach. What they found (and really schools here that have autonomy found long ago) was that teachers won't put up for long with colleagues that are not pulling their weight, and that others blossomed when given quality, ongoing training and support in what they do (what a concept).

If we truly want to foster innovation in and from America's schools. If we want schools that foster engagement and creativity, an important step will be to give teachers and schools the autonomy and time to build great schools from the ground up. If some of those are charter schools, great, but non-charter public schools should be at the forefront as well. The technology available to us now that connects us all in new powerful ways will leverage what teachers can do and plan by including successful colleagues globally in making and incorporating genuinely innovative practices. Put actual experienced educators in charge; they are the heart of real reform.

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