Monday, March 12, 2012

Real Education Reform? In Alabama?!?

I'm going to write something that I never thought I'd ever write in the entire scope of my life and work: 

The state of Alabama might have the answer to education reform.

After you stop laughing, keep reading. Our new state superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, has developed quite a reputation in our state for thinking outside the box and, quite frankly, freaking people out. As a former special education teacher, school principal, and district superintendent, Dr. Bice knows what it's like to work in a school and deal with regulations, rules, and standards - and he knows that these things can be used for good and for evil. He's shaking things up at the State Department of Education, reorganizing offices and asking whether programs are truly worth the state's time and efforts. He's advocating some reforms that are making people uncomfortable, but that just might work. 

One reform that I'm a little geeked out about is Innovation Systems, in which schools can apply to waive or modify regulations in exchange for targeted accountability. Schools can waive certification regulations or modify expenditures. They can extend the school day or provide more flexible learning opportunities. In actuality, they can propose just about any change they want, as long as it benefits the students and teachers in their school or district. In return, the school must propose to track a minimum of two accountability measures - one dealing with student achievement (broadly defined) and another negotiated with the State Department. 

Two districts have taken the state up on their offer to be an Innovation System - Florence City Schools and Lawrence County Schools. In Florence, they have created a magnet school for fine arts, an industry-based program for at-risk students, and a project-based history/language arts program designed to increase success on AP Exams. In Lawrence County, they have developed a comprehensive, integrated agricultural curriculum that awards co-op credit for after-school agricultural work and integrates economics into agriscience and business courses. Both districts agreed to be held accountable to their own goals, which includes increasing overall and subject-specific graduation rates and scores on AP Exams and the ACT.

In essence, Innovation Systems are charter schools, without the charter.

These systems are publicly run and publicly funded. The schools are still run by the principals. The classes are still taught by the teachers. No federal or corporate money was spent. No parent triggers were pulled. Schools are simply being allowed to have the flexibility of a charter without having to give up all those things that make a school in the public domain. Dr. Bice believes that what's good for a charter should also be good for a public school. If charter schools are designed to do what's best for kids, why can't public schools be allowed to do what's best for kids? 

I think this program has two strong things going for it:

  • Schools can do what's best for kids.
  • Schools can determine how to measure what's best for kids.

I believe if we let schools out of their boxes, we will get ideas and innovations that meet students' needs and help students figure out what they want. I hope more school districts in Alabama take Dr. Bice up on his Innovation Systems idea. And I hope more states offer an Innovation System approach to their districts so they can see what educators can do if they are allowed to teach outside the box.

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