Policy & Analysis

Finding Innovation under ESSA

While the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) holds the promise of helping states transform their K-12 public education, one reform organization fears that true innovation will get lost in the shuffle. ESSA restructures the grant programs intended to help fund school improvement and innovation. However, the Christensen Institute (motto: "Improving the world through disruptive innovation") has expressed concern that states will tweak school performance goals or the tools they use to drive school improvement and call it job done.

As the new report, "The State Innovator's Toolkit," noted, "States must take a deliberate approach to innovation under ESSA. They must buck the tendency to merely layer new metrics onto their existing policies and processes, hoping for the best." If that doesn't happen, the authors wrote, the "old system" will "simply cannibalize any new efforts in the ESSA era." While a "full-service school" might try to implement a "massive" overhaul in how it operates, for example, it's still expected to improve student outcomes as measured by the state assessment system, which can hold a school leader back "from exploring disruptive options."

What does true education innovation look like? According to the institute, innovation may be providing new forms of course access, credit recovery or teacher preparation or offering new ways to measure student success. The report turns to innovation theory to lay out the organizational model for innovation and builds on that to construct frameworks or approaches that states, districts and schools may consider for managing innovation under ESSA.

ESSA itself provides a few decent starting points for pursuing disruptive business models, the report pointed out, including grants for education innovation and research, direct student services and teacher and school leader academies.

How would these be applied? One example the report explores is the use of direct student services funding to build up course access programs that target "nonconsumption." These are course experiences that students wouldn't otherwise have access to, "such as AP courses, electives, world languages, dual enrollment college courses, or courses for which students often encounter scheduling conflicts."

The same policies that support new course access could, in time, help existing school districts consider how they operate, for example, by opening their own online courses and changing up "how they do business." That's how Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania ended up building its own online learning program, as an in-house alternative to the state's cyber charters. Now, Quakertown uses its own teachers to create and deliver online courses. As a result, in its first four years of operation, the district has retained more than $2.5 million that would have "left the district" if students transferred to or continued working with cyber charter schools.

The report's intent, according to its authors, is to "help states understand the circumstances and organizational dynamics that affect any school system's ability to innovate and then offer recommendations tailored to varying circumstances." By arming themselves "with the right theories of innovation to match opportunities under ESSA," the report asserted, "states will be able to push past mere trial-and-error innovations" and "find themselves better equipped to set up schools for success with sustaining and disruptive innovations from the start."

The "State Innovator's Toolkit" is openly available on the Christensen website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.