Five Ways to Innovate in Education

Melissa Lazarín and Robin Chait detail five innovative initiatives that states and school districts can implement with recovery funds.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for using $5 billion in stimulus funding to reward states that are instituting bold, promising education reforms. (AP/File)
President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for using $5 billion in stimulus funding to reward states that are instituting bold, promising education reforms. (AP/File)

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are calling for anything but more of the same in their guidance to states in how they should use their share of the recovery dollars. In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Secretary Duncan reiterated that he will use the $5 billion “Race to the Top” funds included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to reward states that are instituting bold, promising education reforms, and factor in the extent to which states are allocating the early distribution of stimulus dollars toward innovative education initiatives.

The following five reforms can help states and school districts to implement innovative initiatives as they allocate their stimulus dollars across schools:

1. Redesign the school day and/or calendar. The call for higher, more rigorous standards and increased global competitiveness have made the traditional school day and calendar largely insufficient to ensure that all students graduate from high school with a diploma and ready for college. Expanded learning time, a schoolwide strategy that entails redesigning and lengthening the school day and/or year by at least 30 percent to help support teaching and learning for all students, can be particularly beneficial for low-income students, minority students, and English language learners. The Center for American Progress has identified more than 300 initiatives in high-poverty, high-minority schools, among them many charter schools, that have significantly expanded learning time. The stimulus funds provide an opportunity to scale up these practices

2. Rethink teacher compensation systems. Most teachers in the United States are paid according to the single salary schedule, which pays all teachers in a district according to the same schedule, and is usually based on years of experience and educational credits. This compensation system shortchanges teachers in high-poverty schools, since they face more difficult working conditions but are paid the same as teachers in less challenging schools. It also dissuades talented teaching candidates from entering the teaching profession, since they can be paid for their skills and talents in other fields. Financial incentives can help make high-poverty schools more competitive in the labor market for effective teachers. States and districts could use recovery funds to design and pilot incentive programs with components targeted to high-needs schools. Denver’s ProComp Program serves as a promising example.

3. Make the tenure process more meaningful. Most teachers today receive tenure after teaching for a specified period of time in the district. Tenured teachers may only be terminated for cause, and only after prescribed due process procedures have been followed. Yet tenure is frequently a mark of time instead of an indication that a teacher has met a specific standard of quality. Districts could make the tenure process more meaningful by improving the quality and rigor of their evaluation systems and linking them to tenure decisions.

4. Adopt early college high schools and fast track programs. The 21st-century workforce will increasingly require more than a high school diploma. Unfortunately, half of Latinos and African Americans drop out of school before high school graduation, leaving these students at a particular disadvantage in the future economy. Fast track programs such as early college high schools can help students stay on the track to high school graduation, while also exposing them to the rigors of college coursework and allowing them to earn free college credit. Stimulus dollars provide an opportunity for states and districts to begin building partnerships with institutions of higher education and nonprofit organizations to establish these innovative secondary school programs.

5. Set and meet rigorous, common standards. In a speech outlining his education agenda at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce earlier this month, President Obama challenged states to adopt “world-class” standards and highlighted efforts of “forward-thinking” states that are working together to improve standards. He also pointed to Massachusetts, one of only two states that is currently benchmarking their standards to those of high-performing countries, as an example for others. Common and internationally benchmarked standards are necessary to restore America’s academic competitive edge across the globe. States could use stimulus funds to revise their standards to more closely resemble those of high-performing countries and to design assessments that are aligned with these more rigorous standards.

Melissa Lazarín is Associate Director of Education Policy and Robin Chait is Associate Director for Teacher Quality at American Progress.

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Melissa Lazarín

Senior Policy Adviser