Minnesota Senate Hears Testimony in Favor of Innovation Zone Bill

In a recent Star Tribune commentary, Education Evolving and several district superintendents urged the Minnesota Legislature to create Innovation Zones. We asserted, “Education in Minnesota badly needs innovation. The question is: When will legislators realize that one size does not fit all?”

The chance came last Thursday when the Minnesota Senate’s Education Policy Committee heard testimony on the Innovation Zone (IZ) bill, SF 1474, which is championed by Education Evolving, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, the Minnesota School Boards Association, and supported by Schools for Equity in Education and Ed Allies.

What’s In the IZ Bill?

According to SF 1474, the purpose of the IZs are to “allow school districts and charter schools to research and implement innovative education programming models designed to better prepare students for the world of the 21st century.”

Specifically, the bill would create the opportunity for public schools to join together to form an IZ partnership, which can also include non-school entities such as nonprofit organizations, postsecondary institutions, and units of local government.

Some examples of innovative practices that could be tried and researched in the IZ partnerships are:

  • Personalized learning
  • New approaches to evaluation and assessment
  • Use of competency rather than seat time and course completion
  • Multidisciplinary, real-world, inquiry-based, and student-centered models designed to make learning more relevant and engaging

In order to give schools in the IZ partnership greater autonomy and flexibility to innovate, they may apply for exemptions in up to 9 areas of law. Some of those areas include extending the possible times and spaces for learning, the progression of students by mastery of competencies, the creation of individualized career pathways, and requirements for graduation.

Our Education System Is Getting the Results It was Designed to Get

Jay Haugen, Superintendent of Farmington Public Schools, provided testimony in favor of the IZ bill, citing the need for a change in the design of school, “We need schools where every student will be successful because they were designed that way.”

He explained that the current, industrial age education system was designed to be an opportunity for students, not a necessity. However, at some point it was realized that education was a basic need for all students. But rather than change the design of the system to mirror the shifted purpose, we kept it.

Haugen concluded, “The [industrial age] system is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Therefore, we need a new system and that is what an innovation zone is all about.”

Lisa Snyder, Superintendent of Lakeville Public Schools (which houses the nationally recognized teacher-powered school Impact Academy as well as many other innovative programs), also spoke in favor of the bill and illustrated the need to create choice within the district system. “The reason Minnesota has such strong laws around chartering is to give parents choice and to transform learning. It’s all about learning. The innovation zone gives our public districts an opportunity to transform within the [district] system.”

She also asserted that, by creating more choice within the district system through the IZ partnerships, students would feel empowered to take control of their education and personalize it to fit their needs.

Researching the Innovations that Emerge

A novel component of the bill is the requirement that the IZ partnerships “must research and implement innovative education programs and models that are based on proposed hypotheses.” Importantly, this can also include emerging practices that may not yet be backed by research.

Dave Heistad, Executive Director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment with Bloomington Public Schools, testified in favor of the IZ bill and its research component. He asserted, “One of the strongest components of this effort is to build rigorous research along with innovation,” which would also allow IZs to begin looking at their return on investment. He added that public education does not spend enough time and energy on understanding and sharing what works.

The Education Policy Committee voted to pass the bill out of Committee, and refer it to the Senate Education Finance Committee.

Education Evolving will continue to follow and report on relevant and innovative policy topics throughout this session.

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