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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Freedom to Experiment Presents Challenges for School Innovation Networks

Benjamin Herold, staff writer for Education Week writes, "Giving small networks of schools autonomy to try new approaches with technology requires a delicate balance of logistical freedom and district technical support."

Fourth graders used new low-cost laptop computers in 2012 at Ashley Park Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., as part of a public-private partnership to encourage educational technology innovation. But the computing initiative ran into challenges because of a lack of technological support and it is no longer using those laptops. Photo: Education Week

Frustrated by the lack of innovation in K-12 education, a growing number of district leaders are giving small networks of schools the freedom and resources to try new approaches with classroom technology. 

But the approach can be rife with technical and logistical challenges, as can be seen in the experience of North Carolina’s 145,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

There, after two years and nearly $3 million, a network of nine semi-autonomous schools known as Project LIFT has mostly ditched its own student-laptop initiative. Ironically, Project LIFT is now embracing closer coordination with the system-wide strategy of the very district to which it was supposed to be an alternative.
“There have been lessons learned,” said Denise Watts, the learning communities superintendent who oversees the network. “We do not function on an island.”

Even autonomous schools must often still rely on their host district’s central office for broadband and wireless infrastructure, technical assistance, and administrative support. Just introducing devices and software into classrooms in no way guarantees that instruction will change—or that schools’ manifold reporting and compliance obligations will be done more efficiently. And while big private donations may generate headlines, they don’t always result in what schools actually need.

Despite those common challenges, experts in the field say it would be wrong to view such experiments as failures.

“There’s a downside in thwarting people’s initiative, regardless of how things turn out,” said Steven Hodas, a practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy-advocacy center at the University of Washington. “When a district makes a [system-wide] mistake, it impinges on a lot more people than when nine schools try something that doesn’t work,” he said.

Source: Education Week