Stop Asking for Permission: Imagined Barriers to School Improvement

Sometimes people get used to hearing “no” so often, that they stop asking. Whether real or perceived, educators often believe there are too many barriers preventing them from innovating and creatively solving problems in their schools.

According to a report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), only one-third of “perceived” barriers to school improvement identified by principals were actually real. In other words, two-thirds of the obstacles don’t actually exist in statutes, policies or directives with real consequences.

The principals identified 128 barriers in three common areas: those that prevented instructional innovation, those that restricted resource allocation, and those that impeded efforts to improve teacher quality. The most mentioned area involved instructional innovation, yet the researchers found this area to have the least number of real barriers.

Teachers struggle with this same mindset. When they’ve done it a certain way “because that’s the way it’s always been done,” it’s difficult to imagine exploring and pursuing new, creative and more interesting ways to improve. In Frederick Hess’ book, “The Cage-Busting Teacher,” he contends that teachers have much more power than they realize to create great classrooms, great schools, and even great systems.

“The problem is that they (teachers) are routinely trapped in ‘cages’ of their own design,” says Hess. “They’re blocked by urban legends, timidity, a failure of imagination, or not knowing what they’re already free to do.”

Passage of the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013 received extensive media coverage, but there has been little focus on language in the bill that provides an avenue for school leaders to get creative in solving problems by removing some of the real barriers.

The “flexibility” portion of the AAA gives local schools the ability to apply for relief, or waivers, from certain state statutes if the schools can show evidence of how they would use this freedom to improve student learning. This was a positive step for the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) to loosen the reins for any school willing and able to innovate to better serve their students.

For example, Baldwin County schools applied for a waiver from the statute that established the length of school day and school term. The statute states, “the length of the school day shall be at least six (6) hours of actual teaching exclusive of lunch and recess.” But Baldwin County wanted to reduce the high school drop-out rate by providing an alternative, flexible way for students-at-risk to learn—and graduate. The State Board of Education approved their waiver request in May of 2014, clearing the way to establish its “Digital Renaissance Virtual School,” a stand-alone online high school for motivated students that wished to complete their high school education on their own time.

Twelve Alabama school systems have been approved for waivers since the bill was enacted. More have applied or are working on application, but many superintendents have said that they have had to “color within the lines” for so long, that they are having a hard time conceptualizing “innovation.”

Teachers often work in isolation, and while more collaboration is encouraged today, there still may remain cultures of operating in the bubble of one’s classroom. Fortunately, as the ALSDE’s strategic Plan 2020 is being implemented, the role of the Instructional Partners helps to bring teachers together across the curriculum and even across grade levels, in order to have a more student-centered approach to teaching. There is more sharing of instructional materials and resources than ever before, and this important networking is spawning more ideas and creativity at the local level.

In Hess’ book, he explains, “There is much that teachers can do right now, today. But there are also real limits to what teachers can do in roles, classrooms, and schools designed for the world of a century ago.” With so much more flexibility afforded to educators today, all teachers have the opportunity to be “cage-busters” – going beyond the familiar to the possible.

For leaders, the CRPE report recommends working around real, or imagined barriers with the following tactics:

  • Encourage networking to share experiences.
  • Help principals understand teacher contracts, or personnel requirements inside and out.
  • Train principals in the budgeting process.
  • Use budgeting simulations to get better results from current resources.

The Alabama Best Practices Center (ABPC), a division of A+, has built several networks statewide for educators and administrators that assist in sharing innovative efforts proven to work in Alabama’s schools.

The flexibility option in the AAA provides opportunities for schools to think, first, about what they want to accomplish, and then to identify anything that may stand in their way.

Click here for the full report from CRPE, “Policy Barriers to School Improvement; What’s Real and What’s Imagined”

Click here for excerpts from “The Cage-Busting Teacher,” by Frederick M. Hess.

Click here to discover what Alabama educators are sharing through the Alabama Best Practices Center networks.

Click here to download the ALSDE Innovation Zone / Flexibility Application.