Elements of Good Policy for School “Innovation Zones”

Memo • December 2011 • By Kim Farris-Berg, Lars Esdal, Tim McDonald

In 2010 and 2011 Education Evolving studied the policy frameworks being used in large cities around the country to encourage innovation in school as part of its Education Innovating initiative.

Here is a summary of key elements of those frameworks.

A Policy Framework for Innovation

Innovation zones can be made possible by state statute, school district policy, or a combination of both. An ideal policy framework should allow for autonomy, flexibility, and customized accountability for those working to redesign schools.

The country’s K-12 systems exist in state laws, and school districts are a function of them. Therefore placing the authority to create autonomous schools in state law is important to sustaining a district’s commitment to innovation. Otherwise changes in the make-up of political leadership in cities, on district boards, and in district administrations have the potential to jeopardize efforts in motion.

But even where state legislation is not yet enacted, the possibility for innovation exists. Administrators and union leaders can do a lot within the context of their districts by creating separate space for R&D to occur. They may grant waivers to rules and regulations, and move decision making out to the front-line units of schools: teachers and principals.

For anyone thinking about how to proceed to create a state or city-level innovation zone, we have assembled some key elements of good policy.

Key Elements of Good Policy

Most of the strategy for improvement nationally thinks in terms of improving ‘content’: the standards, the curriculum, and its delivery. It assumes the form and function of traditional school as a given. On this site Education|Evolving is arguing the need to stimulate a process of innovation by creating the space and the conditions to try non-traditional forms of school organization, approaches to learning, and definitions of achievement.

Cities and states are creating innovation zones where this work may occur, unhindered. Policy should emphasize two key characteristics for such innovation zones, and for the schools in them: autonomy and accountability. In recent years lawmakers have been applying accountability often without granting sufficient authority to change the school accordingly. Without both, the system is locked.


Autonomy is essential for the leaders of a school that seek to pursue a non-traditional form and function. Innovation increases as schools are afforded more authority to design and operate their learning programs.

New practices need to be protected from the inertia of institutions against change, and the tendency of established cultures and interests to rub down the distinctive edges of efforts that are truly new and different.

It’s happening…

At the state level, Minnesota has made it possible for districts to create schools with autonomy and exemption from regulation reflective of the chartering sector. There the Site-Governed Schools law passed in 2009. In Massachusetts new and converting schools may petition for exemptions as Innovation Schools.

At the district level major cities across the country are making strategic decisions to push authority out into schools, encouraging change.

The Boston Pilot Schools network has identified five key areas of autonomy for schools that strive to be innovative. The network asserts that schools must have authority over staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, governance and policies, and school calendar. Find the five Pilot School Areas of Autonomy here.


Teachers and school leaders in conventional schools have little authority to shape what is taught or how it is taught. There is understandable resistance on the part of these professionals to be held accountable for what they cannot control. Authority and accountability must be combined.

Evidence indicates that where teachers or school leaders control their work their willingness to accept responsibility for school performance changes dramatically. By including them in deciding the character of a school—its schedule, pedagogy, and especially its budget and staffing—political and policy leaders will find teachers and school leaders more cooperative, and more able to respond.

It’s happening…

In states that charter schools, the charter is subject to annual or periodic reviews and a school may be shut down if it fails to perform. In districts such as Boston and New York, the schools negotiate performance agreements with the district that include student achievement goals, enrollment targets, and the demonstration of sound fiscal and building management. The schools are reviewed and judged by their results.

Autonomy and Accountability Open the Process of Innovation

Innovation is the way that public education can stay relevant and viable in times of rapid change. Where autonomy and accountability are present innovation is happening—and in some of the areas where it is needed most:

Improving financial sustainability

Where spending decisions are placed directly into the hands of those responsible for the operations of a school. When teachers and school leaders see the price of school services set in the context of the school budget, they weigh and make their own decisions according to costs and benefits.

In The Secret of TSL William Ouchi has told a story about an Oakland superintendent who was incurring large costs for substitute teachers. In the eyes of the schools, the substitutes were free. So he took the district budget for substitute teachers and sent it to the principals, allowing them to keep what they did not spend. The city’s spending on substitute teachers fell by several million dollars.

Adoption of IT for student-centric learning

Autonomy makes room for schools to take up new developments in IT by giving those on the front lines the ability to change pedagogy and school design as required. In factory schools technology is relegated to the function of aiding the teacher-lecture mode of instruction. There computers, smart boards, and the Internet are added-on.

But where people are free to design different models of schools and different processes for learning, it is possible to use new technologies to remake the learning experience around the student. Those doing this are changing the role of student from passive to active participants, improving the productivity of the school by increasing student labor.

State Statute or District Policy?

Districts may implement strong innovation programs, and can arrange themselves so that entrepreneurship in the system can take place free of undue restriction. But only a state can relax the legislative and regulatory constraints on prospective new schools. Only state legislatures can remove barriers to change embedded in state law. State statute can be proactive and create the conditions for innovation that span the district and chartered sectors.

The strategy of innovation-based reform creates opportunity for those interested in changing the design of schools. Teachers are pressing for the opportunity to start and run their own schools in nearly every city where the opportunity has been opened. Civic and political leaders can press districts to ensure that new, innovative schools are able to develop free from undue restrictions and contrary interests.

There are particular actions that state legislatures can take to create the conditions for innovation:

  1. First, legislatures should identify with the help of teachers and entrepreneurs everything in current law and regulation that gets in the way of innovation. This will turn up some surprises, and it will unsettle some people. But this is a necessary step. Remove the excuses for trying things that would work better. Remove barriers to the adoption of learning models that are fundamentally different than the course-and-class arrangement.
  2. Second, make it possible for districts to create new schools with autonomy and decreased regulation. Make sure that those districts interested in trying things new have the full authority to do so. This has happened in Minnesota through their Site-Governed district schools; has begun in West Virginia through their new innovation zones law; and is now possible in Massachusetts with pilot schools and Innovation Schools.
  3. Third, follow the Minnesota legislature’s lead in the exploration of a state-level innovation entity to help focus efforts at getting schools that are new, different, and better. Establish a basic infrastructure in the state to provide leadership and support for the creation of many new schools that are different. Charge it with fostering innovation and providing technical assistance to school entrepreneurs. Make it responsible for identifying the most qualified authorizers of new schools, and to managing federal and other funds to facilitate planning and start-ups.