- Meriden Public Schools Superintendent Mark Benigni has led the Connecticut district since 2010, when he realized there was a lack of a plan for change and innovation in the wake of three top administrators' retirements and set out to empower teachers, Edutopia reports.
- The move to encourage teacher collaboration and agency came when, amid a limited budget, the district's teachers began telling him where and how changes could be implemented district-wide.
- As a result, Edutopia reports, investments were directed towards improving professional development, making learning personalized and student-centered alongside 1:1 device programs, and committing to more bottom-up innovation and collaboration — moves that have thus far seen massive drops in suspensions and expulsions, higher test scores, national recognition, and greater teacher satisfaction.
Like Minnesota Superintendent Lisa Snyder found with her efforts to encourage teacher autonomy at Orchard Lake Elementary in Lakeville, MN, Benigni has unleashed the potential of bottom-up innovation. Too often, policymakers and administrators mandate initiatives from the top down without full consideration of input from those who have to make them work in the classroom, and who may have a better idea of what might work best. At Orchard Lake, for example, a teacher-driven pilot program has now expanded to include the entire school, with all 34 teachers leading three "vertical, K-5 communities" and having decision-making power around things like knocking down walls for open class environments to allow students to work across grade levels at their own level of understanding.
Ultimately, inspiring creativity and innovation with top-down mandates can be difficult. It's hard to be enthusiastic about stepping outside of the box and trying something new, especially if stringent accountability standards are still in place, as has often been the case with federal standardized testing mandates and the teacher and school evaluations that have become increasingly tied to those results. Can you really expect anyone to want to try a new approach if failure might mean firing or consequences for the entire school?
With the ESSA granting more decision-making power to states and local districts while loosening standardized testing mandates, perhaps enough wiggle room will be available for more approaches like these from Connecticut and Minnesota.