Denver Innovation Schools Report Does Little to Resolve Policy Debate

Back in the warm summertime, which seems so long ago, I brought attention to a thoughtful essay that called into question the success of the Innovation Schools Act. My thoughts on the matter really haven’t changed since then — I still believe despite the clear limitations there is a place for innovation schools, though not as prevalent or prominent as some might have hoped.

Yesterday brought the release of a three-year study on the eight earliest Denver innovation schools — including Bruce Randolph, Cole, Manual and Montclair. One key, hopeful finding? Successful innovation schools exhibit “positive cultures,” which contributes to steady, effective principal leadership.

Still, the two news stories on the study make similar points. The Denver Post highlights that innovation status is simply a tool, not a magic bullet. Meanwhile, Ed News Colorado’s headline trumpets the major (and not terribly surprising) finding that the “innovation law doesn’t spark major change.” One point in the study touched on in the latter story did cause me to roll my eyes a bit:

In particular, according to the report, principals, teachers and parents cited as positives greater control over how and when they hire, the ability to opt out of direct teacher placements by the district and the use of one-year contracts to ensure new hires are a good fit with the school’s mission.

Still, the findings on innovation schools’ staff were acknowledged as a concern by some, including Carolyn Crowder, executive director of the Denver teachers’ union. The report noted teachers at the eight schools were less experienced – by about three years – and less likely to have master’s degrees than teachers in five comparison schools.

For anyone primarily concerned about what innovation status means for improved student learning, the only response is: So what??? Every shred of research shows no connection between teacher master degrees and student learning. Nearly all research shows that teacher effectiveness plateaus after three to five years of acquired experience.

And guess what? The study’s detailed findings reveal that average teacher experience in innovation schools is about 6 years, as opposed to 9 years in non-innovation schools. Of all the findings to be concerned about in the report, this one should hardly cause more than a yawn.

I still have some hope for innovation schools — some will succeed. Though in the end charters are a more promising option. But the new report certainly leaves some food for thought about the ambiguities that remain unresolved, as well as some questions about which schools will fulfill their potential effectiveness.