Don’t Waste Your Time Reading This (Unless You Really Do Want to Innovate Your Practices)

By Kevin Miller, School Innovation Consultant

This is Part One of a multi-part series of articles about how to establish meaningful innovative practices in public school districts.  Part Two will appear in a future edition of The Update Bulletin.

Why are you reading this article?  No, really, why are you reading it?  The teaser must have been really compelling…wait a minute, this is the teaser – but it’s also the first paragraph.  Is this sort of like breaking the fourth wall in comic books and movies?  Will I have a Ferris Bueller or Deadpool type experience if I read this article?  And what does this have to do with school innovation?  Ugh, I feel like I’m being tricked, but I also feel like I have to go on.

“This is uh... This is ridiculous, ok I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go. What - I'LL GO,” Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Yes, that’s an extremely unconventional way to begin an article in a professional journal, but then, this entire article is far from conventional.  Instead, hopefully you’ll find it refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary.  And, hopefully, you enjoy occasional movie references because they can be very helpful when making some points.  So, let’s get on with it.

If you’re like me, you have to be selective in your professional reading.  We don’t have time to read articles and books that won’t somehow help us do our jobs better or contribute in meaningful ways toward improving learning for our students.  At the same time, little that we read is so inspirational, insightful, and substantial that reading it will prompt actions that lead to quick and/or significant improvements.  Rather, most have some benefit and get added to the thousands of other bits of wisdom gained from reading, experience, conversations, presentations, and numerous other sources.  If they’re really good, we’ll save them, share them, and refer back to them sometime in the future.

Okay, what makes this article so special?  And it better be good; I’m already three paragraphs in and all I can think about are the previously mentioned profane “super-hero” and the high school student who makes a fool out of his principal.

So here it is – this article truly intends to challenge you, big time.  It is a call to action – individually and collectively.  It is meant both to inspire you toward making significant changes and to begin building your belief in the ability for those changes to come to fruition.  If you are in a leadership role in public education, it is hoped you will feel compelled to begin implementing changes and taking actions that you know will make significant differences for your students.  If you are not in a direct leadership role, it is hoped you will feel compelled to reach out to the leaders you know and support and encourage them to begin implementing changes and taking actions.

Now that I’ve got your attention (you’re still reading, right?), there’s no sense starting small – Go Big, or Go Home!  We need to talk about real innovation; significant innovation; REVOLUTIONARY INNOVATION.  So, let’s begin by imagining what education would look like if we could start over and then work backwards to changes that can be made to the current system that would be truly innovative.  Consider: if you were asked to join a group of national leaders who were tasked with designing a public education system that would replace our current system sometime in the next twenty to thirty years, what might that system look like?

“It’s a trap!” Admiral Ackbar, Return of the Jedi.

Yes, it is a trap.  But it’s a trap of our own making – and it’s why so much of what we read and discuss about education innovation is not all that innovative.  We are trapped in a mindset built through immersion in an educational structure and overall curriculum developed 125 years ago, so whenever we begin talking education innovation, we get trapped in that model.  Everything we know about learning, brains, human development, and everything else related to education gets filtered through that model.  That also means we typically cast aside or significantly cripple any innovative practices that don’t readily fit the model and then find reasons to justify what we’ve done.

In order to imagine a public education system for the Twenty First Century, one that would be effective for all students (think, students excited about and personally invested in school; all students able to approach their full potential; no achievement or opportunity gaps) we must begin from what we know about learning, brains, growth, development, motivation, mindsets, etc.  In fact, we should consider all that we know focused on an individual child – maybe your own child or grandchild.

So, to reframe the earlier question, if there were no resource limitations, no existing structure, rules, or laws that need to be considered, and you needed to only worry about preparing that one child for his or her future, what would that child’s education look like?  Of course, you’re not going to come up with a design idea instantly and you’re maybe doubting the value of even doing this little exercise, because you know it’s a lost cause; it will never happen; the Empire is too big and strong, they control the Galactic Senate and the Trade Federation, (that is, existing laws, rules, funding, governance, etc. all reinforce our current model and preclude anything too different) and besides, they have the Death Star.

However, what if a small group of rebels infiltrated the Empire and escaped with the plans (and the vulnerability) that will allow you to destroy the Death Star and stand up to the Empire; that is, what if there was a book of all the loopholes in the education laws and rules that woult allow just about any innovation that is in the best interest of students (or even just one student).  So, plan to return to the exercise above when you’ve finished this article and are beginning to realize that real innovation – revolutionary innovation – is not just possible, but that to which you should be giving your highest priority!

“I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit…This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.” Princess Leia Organa via holographic message carried by R2D2, Return of the Jedi.

Prior to and during 2013, a number of Wisconsin school districts had contacted the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) with concerns that various state education laws and rules were preventing them from implementing innovative practices.  In response, leaders from many of these districts were convened to determine the nature of the innovation obstacles they were finding, identify the specific laws and rules at the heart of the obstacles, and develop guidance to help work around those obstacles.  In 2013 DPI completed Fostering Innovation in Wisconsin Schools based on the work of this group.

Unfortunately, few people discovered this document in the ensuing years (as if it really were hidden in the memory system of an R2 unit).  It does continue to be accessible, as of April 2017, on the DPI website here.  The good news is that the guide is being updated to reflect law and rule changes that have occurred since, and the revised version should be available in the next few months.  What sort of work-arounds does the Fostering Innovation guide provide?  Here are two.

Most districts know that Wisconsin education laws require students to attend school every day.  They further know that these seat time requirement and compulsory attendance laws dictate things such as how many hours of instruction must be scheduled each year, when classes may begin in the fall, that students must be enrolled in a class each period of each day, and that parents must compel their children to attend school.  While these perceptions are not wrong – this is essentially what the statutes and rules state – there is a great deal of flexibility within these laws and as a result of other laws.

For example, most district leaders know that a school district may establish an alternative education program that permits students to not adhere to many of these requirements.  What many district leaders may not realize is that you could enroll any – or even every – student in such an alternative program.  In other words, if you know some or all students will learn more effectively outside a traditionally structured school day and setting, you can establish a corresponding program within the existing laws.

Most people just think of alternative programs as those designed for students who are not even meeting minimum expectations and/or are struggling with attendance, conduct, or other challenges.  In fact, alternative programs can be a great way to establish innovative options for students who are simply not meeting their individual potential – which can and often does include nearly all student including the highest performing students.

Similar to offering alternative programs, districts can approve individual student requests for program or curricular modifications.  And as with alternative programs, these students don’t necessarily need to adhere to the requirements noted earlier.  So completely individualized (personalized) learning approaches can be established for one or all students.  The related statutes for this flexibility do include language that these are to be student requested modifications, but there is nothing stopping districts from facilitating the student requests.

In both these cases – alternative programs and student requested modifications – there are more guidelines and requirements that come into play.  These are spelled out in more detail in the Fostering Innovation guide, along with examples of how they can be used.  Keep in mind that these represent just two of the sections covered in the guide, which includes 17 sections that explain flexibility within state laws and rules.  The bottom line is that, if you figure out practices that will benefit your students, there is a high likelihood that they are permissible within our existing laws and rules.  So, that removes one obstacle to establishing innovative practices in your school or district.

Of course, that is only one of a number of challenges.  Even as you consider what school must look like to foster learning for every student, you must confront the realities of our current system.  Regardless of your position in your school or district, you can’t just make a decree and your vision becomes reality.  You must also ensure that the necessary knowledge and skills are present in those who will facilitate these practices which, in turn, requires finding a way to develop those in your staff.

Further, just as with the rebels in Star Wars, knowing what needs to be done isn’t enough.  Those rebels needed others who believed in their cause and were willing to make a commitment, take risks, and make sacrifices so that the vulnerability could be exploited.  You have numerous stakeholders who must believe in your vision and the practices you are considering and then, hopefully, become part of the implementation.  And we haven’t even mentioned how you would fund these efforts (no, this wasn’t written assuming you really had unlimited resources).

These obstacles – sometimes individually but often collectively – are the reason schools, districts, and even state education agencies continually work around the edges of innovation.  We keep trying to get more out of a system that was obsolete decades ago.  The good news is that these other obstacles are not as daunting as they first seem.  In future articles, I’ll explore these obstacles and help you see that they are completely manageable and should also not be excuses to hold off on establishing innovative practices.

Now, what are you waiting for?  Start putting your time, effort, and resources into initiatives that will have substantial learning benefits for all your students.

“The question isn't ‘what are we going to do,’ the question is ‘what aren't we going to do?’” Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This is Part One of a multi-part series of articles about how to establish meaningful innovative practices in public school districts.  Part Two will appear in a future edition of The Update Bulletin.

Kevin Miller will be presenting at the upcoming Quality Educators ConventionCome and hear more about this topic and register today!

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