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Aurora Institute

Innovation Zones: Creating Policy Flexibility for Personalized Learning

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Susan Gentz

Issues: State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones


Innovation Zones cover page finalState policy makers have an opportunity to provide a pathway that enables personalized, competency-based learning by creating innovation zones or Districts of Innovation.

An innovation zone is a mechanism states use to create room for encouraging districts to develop new learning models by offering some waivers and exemptions from certain administration regulations and statutory provisions.  Innovation zones are often part of a statewide effort to open up space for schools and educators to create next generation, personalized learning models that dramatically improve the learning of students.  

Instead of educators asking, “Am I allowed to innovate in this way?” …they help identify policy barriers for a state to address and fix. This sense of educator empowerment for planning, getting started in implementation and being able to develop personalized learning models is important — and is supported by a willingness from policy makers to address barriers that arise.

State education agencies are working to support local innovation with dedicated resources and forming “loose-tight” partnerships with innovative districts and schools to address barriers and constraints while playing a catalytic role to diffuse the new approaches throughout the system.

For example, in Colorado, the Innovation Schools Act (2008) provides opportunities for schools and districts to develop innovative practices, better meet the needs of individual students, and allow more autonomy to make decisions at the school level. In Kentucky, HB 37 (2012) created the Districts of Innovation program for redesigning student learning in an effort to support new personalized learning models and increase the number of students who are college- and career-ready.

State policy leaders create innovation zones to provide district and school leaders with the flexibility they need to innovate and develop new personalized learning models. Innovation zones offer state education policy waivers in order to support practitioners in the process of developing and implementing new learning models. As practitioners implement their models, any rules or regulations that impede the model development are brought to light and can be addressed through waivers in a state which has provided such innovation zones. This shifts the role of the state agency from one of compliance enforcement to support in enabling new model development to occur in districts. This mutually serves the state in providing a safe place to identify potential policy barriers to innovation and also serves the district well in having a method to quickly address and remove policy barriers to better serve students.

Policy makers establish innovation zone authority or programs through legislation or through rulemaking to catalyze the development of new learning models. The innovation zone authority provides increased flexibility for a state to waive certain regulations and requirements for schools and systems beginning to plan, design and implement personalized, competency-based education models.  

How Innovation Zones Enable Personalized Learning

Removing regulatory barriers empowers innovation zone participants to think creatively about how to design new personalized learning models that can better meet students where they are and support competency-based pathways. The flexibility of innovation zones opens up space and provides room for student-centered learning.

Innovation zones are important because they allow districts (LEAs) and school leaders space to implement what they think will work best for student-centered learning in their communities. LEAs must present a precise plan to the State Department of Education in order to be granted flexibility from the identified rules and regulations. Thus, by the time an LEA applies for waivers through an innovation zone, they have already put a considerable amount of thought into the school vision, model development and design. Innovation zones are becoming an effective policy lever where states can help support school leaders’ ability to move from innovative concepts into practice. Additional examples are provided below.

Kentucky Districts of Innovation:

Detailed and accurate illustration of map of Kentucky

The Kentucky legislature passed HB 37 in 2012 which created Districts of Innovation. The policy reads: “Districts of innovation shall be provided flexibility from selected Kentucky Administrative Regulations, Kentucky Revised Statutes, and local board of education policies for school administrators, teachers, and staff to meet the diverse needs of students. The initial approval of a district of innovation shall be for a five year period. Each renewal of a district of innovation shall not exceed five years and shall comply with certain administrative regulations.”

Currently seven Districts of Innovation are approved in Kentucky. The Kentucky Department of Education, and more specifically, the Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement, serves as the “research and development” arm of the Kentucky Department of Education and is charged with “incubating” learning innovations with the hope that these new approaches to learning could be scaled in the future. This is where the Districts of Innovation policy leaders are helping to identify system issues and think through scaling strategies, too.

After Districts of Innovation were created, four schools applied and were accepted in the first round. All schools had different models. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Kentucky public school districts have the opportunity to apply to the Kentucky Board of Education for exemption from certain administrative regulations and statutory provisions, as well as waiving local board policy, in an effort to improve the learning of students. By “re-thinking” what a school might look like, districts are able to redesign student learning in an effort to engage and motivate more students and increase the numbers of those who are college- and career-ready.

Kentucky regulations allow districts to issue “a standards-based, performance-based credit, regardless of the number of instructional hours.” Participating districts are required to commit to improving student performance and each district must obtain 70% approval of the plan from teachers before being granted innovation zone status. Strong leadership and culture is critical for success in personalized learning environments.

Some of the policies that were were waived for the innovation zones included seat-time policies, the average daily attendance calculation, and inaccessibility to internships or learning opportunities in communities, after school programs and outside of school walls.  Innovation zones help create policy space for educators to develop innovative instructional models.

Policymaker Considerations for Successful Innovation Zones

Create Innovation Zones that:

  • Catalyze the development of new learning models.
  • Provide the flexibility to waive certain regulations and requirements to schools and systems that are ready to implement competency education.
  • Support innovative educators.

Interested in other promising policies for personalized learning? See our other blogs in this series:

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