The Importance of School and System Flexibility

Every student learns uniquely. Any parent who has sat at the kitchen table and watched a child struggle to do a math problem using the same method as the teacher in class, knows that what works for one child might not be the best for another.

This same idea applies to schools and the communities they serve. The culture and operations of a school in Mobile might not work well in Mountain Brook or Perry County. Despite this, many state laws and rules regulating Alabama’s schools (with the best of intentions) stifle innovation and hinder school-level educators who know more about a school’s students and needs than anyone besides their parents.

This spring, the Alabama Legislature will consider legislation that would give authority to the State Department of Education to grant waivers to schools and systems freeing them from specific state regulations in exchange for alternative plans developed at the local level.

In short, this increased flexibility would allow schools and systems to cut through bureaucratic red tape and replace it with plans to best meet the unique needs of students in their schools.

For some schools, flexibility would offer an opportunity to strive for excellence at an even higher degree. Education professionals on the front lines in schools are often hindered by state requirements and mandates, and that can limit educators’ capacity to meet students’ specific needs. If they know from on-the-ground experience that there is a better way to do things, they need to be free to experiment.

A similar law passed in Oklahoma called the “Empowered Schools and School District Act” encourages schools and systems to develop innovative uses for their financial resources, among other ideas. In its application for a waiver, a system must give an estimate of cost savings or the improved efficiencies it expects to gain from the new tools or methods. Before any waiver can be requested, the local school board must prove that the majority of teachers and administrators in an affected school approve of the proposed plan.

In Alabama, a school system struggling to meet the needs of its students due to restrictions on funding from the state’s Foundation Program might develop a proposal that would waive cert restrictions. Instead, funding from the state might come in the form of a block grant for the system to use as it sees fit and allocate resources to the neediest areas.

For other schools, increased flexibility could allow the freedom from curricular and teaching restrictions that prevent school leaders from implementing creative learning and teaching strategies. The State of Washington passed its own “Innovation Schools and Zones” bill that encourages districts to form partnerships with businesses to develop project-based learning programs that emphasize career pathways in the arts, science, technology, engineering, and math (A-STEM). This idea of project-based learning to use skills in context is increasingly common, and Alabama’s schools need the freedom to teach to the best of their ability.

Maine’s “Act To Create Innovative Public School Zones and Innovative Public School Districts” allows a local school board to design new school calendars. It also encourages schools to find ways to improve their methods for assessing professional development needs of teachers.

Over the last decade, Alabama’s schools have made remarkable progress. Our educational system has moved up in the rankings, and the state has seen its students’ scores rise on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

It’s time for Alabama to take the next step and free schools to go beyond being average so that they can strive for excellence.

Click here for a companion piece on Charter Schools.