Tom Smart, Deseret News
In the business world, companies don't generally share ideas for new products with their competitors, but in the public sector there should be no restrictions on cooperating in ways that might benefit others. That is especially true for public education.
That's why it's intriguing to hear about a program in New England where schools regularly send representatives to talk with each other about innovations to improve the quality of instruction. The program is producing results, and it raises the question of whether a formal mechanism for such sharing should be established or nurtured in Utah.
In five Northeastern states, 56 schools have gotten together to form the League of Innovative Schools, which facilitates the trading of ideas among teachers and administrators. Organizers say the impetus for creating the league was the realization that schools tend to operate in isolation, without formal processes for collaborating with similar institutions.
In the private sector, even though businesses keep innovation in-house, many have created avenues for employees to inform each other of best practices within the company. The education establishment is not unlike a large corporation with multiple subsidiaries. Innovation in curriculum or instructional practices that have produced results in one elementary school ought to be of interest to teachers and administrators in other elementary schools.
But the trick is, they have to know about it. The New England schools have created a network to pass on that information, and they say they are seeing benefits. Other states should pay attention.
In Utah, there are plenty of good examples of innovative thinking happening in several places. The State Office of Education, for example, has received positive feedback on its efforts to develop dual-immersion language programs in schools, which several districts have begun to embrace. There is evidence that such programs can enhance learning beyond language skills.
But that effort is still representative of the classic top-down approach to initiating change. Whether the ideas come from the top, middle or bottom echelons of an organization, it's typically up to a central administrative office to spread the word. A sideways approach, as practiced by the league in New England, is less formal and doesn't rely on any single institution to initiate the communication.
The League organizes regional meetings in which information is shared peer-to-peer, resulting to-date in several experiments in curriculum and instructional techniques. One result has been an increased level of interest in the development of personalized learning strategies for individual students. Schools that are experimenting with such a strategy say they see evidence of improvement in overall academic performance as measured by test scores.
New England educators deserve congratulations for recognizing that creating a culture for innovation will lead to just that. By simply staging sessions to share ideas, educators are encouraged to think out of the proverbial box.
The ability to invest resources in public education varies from state to state. In Utah, schools face uncommon resource pressures due to unique demography. The lesson of the New England experiment is that fostering an environment of innovation doesn't require a legislative mandate or large appropriation. It only requires a simple commitment to reach outside the box.