Alabama District Joins League of Innovative Schools

** UPDATED with comments from Piedmont City School District Superintendent Matt Akin.

Are small school districts better sources of innovation? An 1,100-student school system in Piedmont, Ala., is joining the new League of Innovative Schools and pursuing two new research initiatives, using its size as an advantage, not a detriment. Details can be found in a story by the Anniston Star on Wednesday.

I attended a meeting of the League of Innovative Schools, in Houston last month. No, it’s not some secret club where superheroes take classes. It’s a nonprofit organization created by Congress that brings school districts together with entrepreneurs, researchers, policymakers, and corporate executives.

Here are the intended outcomes, as outlined in my story about the meeting:

  • For districts to make smarter purchasing decisions by being better informed about the education technology market and by partnering on purchases to aggregate demand and lower costs;
  • To make innovation faster, through research projects, data collection, and rapid evaluation, much as successful commercial technology companies do; and
  • If something works–a product or school improvement initiative, for example–to tell others about it and help them implement it.

Many of the school districts represented at the meeting were large—New York City, Houston, San Diego. But some of the first results are coming from Piedmont City School District.

The district is discussing research partnerships with two universities that attended the meeting, the University of Chicago (and its Urban Education Lab) and the University of Washington. Piedmont is considering summer course offerings to combat the knowledge loss that students experience between school years. University of Chicago researchers asked Piedmont to study the potential program to see if it works, the Star reported.

At the league meeting in Houston, Zoran Popovic, a researcher at the University of Washington, wowed attendees with the results of adaptive STEM games the school developed. The games collect thousands of data points on a student’s behavior and performance on questions and tasks. Piedmont has agreed to test a new game of Popovic’s about fractions, the Star reports.

While a small size, and, thus, a small amount of resources, can hinder innovation in some districts (especially rural ones with limited broadband access), Piedmont is using its situation to its advantage. The district offers some courses through iTunes U and Stanford University’s free digital course offerings, and has a 1-to-1 Macbook program (and students would be able to take those devices home during the summer, too, if they participate in summer classes, the Star reports).

“For one, we don’t have the large bureaucracy to navigate when planning a research project,” Matt Akin, Superintendent of Piedmont City School District, wrote in an email. “Therefore, we can be very flexible as terms change.”

In terms of sharing best practices, it’s hard for a district such as Houston, with its 203,000 students, to learn a whole lot from tiny Piedmont (though Akin says he’s discussed the summer course program with Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier). But as technology becomes cheaper and open education resources proliferate, it could be the small, forward-thinking districts like Piedmont that can innovate the fastest, because there are fewer people to get on board and fewer people to say no.

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