Meeting the Moment: What Needs to be True to Spur District Innovation

The effects of COVID-19 on our nation’s schools cannot be overstated. It has, and continues to, dramatically change how students, educators, parents and community members interact and engage with the education system. It has also affected the needs of our schools systems’ innovation leaders. Those tasked with the role of creating new solutions, school models and strategies to spur district innovation are now increasingly tasked with balancing the immediate needs being placed on districts by the pandemic with the long-term need to imagine what lies beyond this current crisis. We spoke to innovation leaders across the country to understand what will enable district innovation in the new year and beyond and how to create the diverse, equitable solutions parents and students want and need in this changing world. The findings of this research aim to lay the groundwork of the Imagine Network, a professional support network targeted specifically for those often in the driver’s seat of district innovation: Chief Innovation Officers. 

Through conversations with Chief Innovation Officers (CIOs), two major areas of need were identified: 1) those that centered students’ and families’ desires, and 2) what must be true for innovative district leaders, often the CIO, to create the conditions for innovation to thrive and deliver the options families want. Addressing these needs will enhance the recovery process occurring across the nation and will ensure that equitable practices are embedded at the core of all future innovation work. Within the two major areas, we identified the following five actionable CIO needs:

1. Elevating Student, Parent and Educator Voice

CIOs need to center students and families’ needs in all future innovation work. Before COVID-19, “normal” was not working for many students. There is an opportunity to now rethink what “normal” should be and better incorporate parent and student voice in the design of, and decisionmaking around, creating new solutions. 

2. Re-envisioning Post-COVID-19 Work with Equity at the Center 

Districts must intentionally and actively target and embed innovative and equitable practices as they begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. With the depleting combination of new COVID-19 variants emerging and accumulated unfinished learning, there is even more impetus to shift away from a “return to pre-COVID” and reimagine what the future could look like for school systems and the students and families they serve.

3. Building Equitable and Resilient Systems

Systems are made of people, and people need to work differently to create new solutions. Systems must be a part of the solution and they are not a monolith. Instead of jumping straight to solutions, those within systems must be equipped with the tools to more fully interrogate their needs and test multiple options. Central to testing is creating a system nimble enough to quickly capture and respond to the information learned through testing.

4. Increased Capacity for Innovation 

CIOs feel overcapacity and isolated, and do not have the ability to fully dedicate their work toward innovation. Innovation leaders need to have the resources required to successfully promote innovation for equity within their district. Providing CIOs the space to develop and lead an innovation agenda that embeds equitable solutions in their district will allow them to better address the challenges of systems work. 

5. Space to Look ahead 

The most pressing needs for CIOs relate to the social, financial and labor needs that have resulted from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the need to get out of short-term problem solving and into longer-term design and building of an equitable and resilient system. CIOs must leverage the strengths of their district to be ambidextrous, managing the crisis of the pandemic while also being innovative with their solutions for a post-COVID-19 world.  

Students’ and Families’ Asks for District Innovation

Central to the core work of a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) is lowering the obstacles facing students and families and empowering them to successfully navigate and succeed within a world full of unique, high-quality options. Districts must intentionally target and embed equitable practices as they begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. This means using resources to actively engage students and families as districts’ move toward a post-COVID-19 pandemic world. Nearly all of the CIOs we spoke to echoed the belief that students and families need to be at the center of all future innovation work to ensure it takes hold. One CIO said, “If you don’t truly understand the community that you are trying to innovate in, then it will be impossible to successfully innovate.” Additionally, districts need to look beyond COVID recovery and re-envision their work to make it more resilient and future-ready. By creating change that is built on the voices and needs of students and parents, CIOs will create innovative solutions that are sustainable and resistant to leadership change.

“Where we consistently make errors is when we don’t consider the people who are being affected by policy. Opportunities for innovation exist within conversations with those directly in the system.”—Parent Advocate

CIOs’ and Districts’ Needs

In order to meet the vision of equity set out by students and families, CIOs must also address the larger scale needs of their districts. These needs are often longer term, systematic changes that require buy-in from district leadership. CIOs must acknowledge that systems are made of people, and people need to work differently to create new solutions. A CIO said, “When solutions are designed by and for people, they are more likely to work rather than when they are designed for programs.” However, to engage in this work, CIOs said they needed to have more capacity to do their day-to-day work. COVID-19 has caused innovation leaders to feel overworked and isolated. CIOs reported being pulled in multiple directions and felt unable to fully dedicate themselves toward district innovation work. Districts are facing a multitude of social, workforce and financial needs that have been created by COVID-19. CIOs stated that the pressing needs facing districts have forced them to focus on short-term solutions opposed to creating and sustaining long-term innovation work.

“COVID really laid bare the things that weren’t working before. It gave an opportunity and urgency to really push on some of the basic ways that districts have been failing students and particularly failing to create equitable opportunities.”—CIO

Enabling Conditions for Innovation

CIOs were asked to reflect on the innovative practices occurring in their own or other districts. Highlighting and elevating these promising solutions is one of the first steps to addressing the needs being raised by CIOs. The innovative practices mentioned by CIOs were bucketed into three areas: culture, community partnerships and resources.

1. Culture

First, CIOs spoke of the value of innovative cultures within districts and communities. A commitment to innovation starts with a culture of innovation—it needs to be deeply embedded in everything that districts do. One CIO envisioned this as, “a team of teachers, school leaders, parents and students who are really fully activated around innovation.”

2. Community Partnerships

A second core area of innovative practices was embedding community partnerships into all work. Working with communities will not only ground innovative practices in the needs of those most proximate to the issues, but it also creates roots for new ideas susceptible to change or go away when there’s district leadership turnover. An expert in the field described the value of community partners as, “they help drive the work because in many places districts have burned so much trust that they won’t be able to do what needs to be done on their own.”

3. Resources

CIOs referenced the importance of having the resources needed and the ability to use them effectively to successfully innovate within their district. Successful CIOs must know how to use resources in a way that will create lasting and sustained innovation while balancing pressing and long-term needs. The increased amount of federal funding being given to districts presents an opportunity for CIOs and district leaders to establish the resources necessary to support innovative work to create more equitable and resilient systems. Doing so also means equipping CIOs with the necessary research and design expertise to generate, develop and launch new ideas in collaboration with others.

This research is only the first step in learning how to best support our schools’ innovation leaders. There must be an increased effort to support the innovative practices occurring across the nation that directly address the identified needs. This year Education First will launch a new network—the Imagine Network—to support CIOs in meeting their communities’ and systems’ needs. Through collaborative learning and support, the Imagine Network will empower innovation leaders to make meaningful and sustainable change in communities across the country. To learn more about the Imagine Network, please visit our website:

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