It’s hard to coach a football game when the players and the playbook are designed for soccer.

This is the challenge that superintendents and principals face as they try to introduce innovation in a school system that was created for a different sport. Why require state-by-state teacher credentials? They clash with today’s reality that students can use the Internet to access content from the best teachers across the world. What’s the use of policies that fund schools based on seat-time? They don’t mesh with new technologies that allow students to progress at their personal best pace. Why uphold student-to-teacher-ratio requirements? They don’t fit with new models that combine online content experts with onsite mentors and facilitators. In short, policies that govern the standard 1-to-30-classroom design are not right for today.

But school leaders do not need to sit on the sidelines waiting for policy change.  They have several ways that they can nudge their schools toward the more student-centered, individualized models of the future. Here are ideas for those who want to know where to begin:

For starters, focus on using innovation to reach students who otherwise would not participate in the system or take certain courses. Districts in several states have contracted with AdvancePath Academics to set up blended-learning labs to recover dropout students. Their simple value proposition is “Give us 3,000 square feet of space on your campus, we’ll give you graduates.” Katherine Mackey’s case study about Wichita Public Schools profiles the several dropout- and credit-recovery centers that the district has set up, often in shopping centers, to use online learning to educate out-of-system students. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools began offering online courses so that schools without a Chinese teacher, for example, could still offer Chinese courses.

Start moving toward a mastery-based model. Define what mastery of the standards means for your students, and then award credit to students who can demonstrate that mastery, even if the students learn the material in nontraditional ways. Chugach School District in Alaska provides one of the best examples of a model for competency-based advancement.  Chugach has no grade levels. To move to the next level, students have to master the one that precedes it. Edutopia profiles the district’s model here.

Use whatever policy vehicles are available to expand the autonomy of your schools. Apply for seat-time waivers, school charters, and curriculum waivers. Hold yourself accountable for results, but push for autonomy about how to arrange your facilities, allocate your funding, and manage your personnel.

Experiment with physical space and student schedules. Some students might learn best using an online-lab model for foreign languages, a flex model for math, and a rotation model for reading. (Definitions of these models are available in The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning.) Start small, such as with students who can provide their own wireless devices, and then expand. When hiring new teachers, look for those who are open minded about and capable of assuming a more specialized role, such as a content expert, mentor, or classroom manager. Use online professional development resources to train teachers for these new roles, because most schools of education are not yet up to the task.

Finally, seek inspiration from other school leaders who are starting to rethink whole school design as they embrace emerging innovations. Disrupting Class does a good job laying out the theoretical groundwork for how innovation will lead to this redesign. Innosight Institute is building a catalog of organizations that are bringing online learning into schools. The first 45 of these profiles are available here.

So much of what leaders hear about education feels dead end, particularly when the topic is funding. But that is no excuse—actually it is the argument for—embracing every option available to carve out space and develop a mentality for innovation.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.