Merriam-Webster defines “innovation” as “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.” That definition makes innovation sound neutral—the new idea could be good or bad; the new method might be better or worse than the old. But in this 21st-century world, innovation means more than just new—it means better. Can you even imagine criticizing someone because they are too innovative? Probably not.
But new isn’t always better. Whoever coined the term “District of Innovation” surely earned a marketing bonus that day.
By now, you have no doubt heard that any school district that was rated acceptable or better could designate itself as a District of Innovation (DOI). In practice, this means the district can exempt itself from nearly all the requirements imposed by the Texas Education Code, including that teachers be certified, be employed under contracts, have due process rights to protect themselves when allegations are made, and be provided a duty-free lunch and planning time.
In the summer of 2016, the Texas commissioner of education blogged that a dozen districts had designated themselves as DOIs. By March 2017 (at the time this article was written), that number had grown to 167. This number might seem small when you consider that there are 1,000+ school districts across the state (and certainly some districts have considered becoming DOIs and rejected the idea). But the rapid rate at which districts are becoming DOIs is alarming. It is reasonable to assume that by this time next year, a large percentage of districts will be DOIs.
There is nothing inherently bad about being a DOI. The danger lies in what the district—potentially your district—chooses to opt out of. For example, many districts have opted out of Texas Education Code 21.003, the requirement that the district employ only certified teachers. The rationale usually given is that the district may have difficulty finding qualified certified teachers for some subjects. That certainly sounds like a good motive. But it remains to be seen whether a district that has opted out of this legal requirement can also then reassign a current teacher to a position he or she isn’t certified to teach despite the teacher’s objections. This may be possible since the legal certification requirement no longer applies to the district.
Teachers are trained to teach their students to think critically. That doesn’t mean they are supposed to be negative—just serious and analytical. Likewise, it is important for you, when you hear your district is initiating this process, to review the plan and take the time to think beyond the stated rationale and consider what the proposed changes can really do. Districts are required to solicit input from the staff and community regarding their proposed innovation plans, so there is a place for your questions and input.
For more information on DOIs, visit ATPE’s Innovation District Resource Page.