Implementing Innovation Strategies to Make School Districts More Equitable

By Robert Low

AASA Leading for Equity: Implementing a Strategic Playbook for Disruption edWebinar recording link


Watch the Recording

Listen to the Podcast

The disruptions and changes during the past year have made a return to the industrial education model of the 19th and 20th centuries problematic for school districts committed to preparing diverse students for 21st century careers. Instead, a more innovative and agile approach is needed to help today’s wide range of students recover from the pandemic and achieve more equitable outcomes.

The strategies needed to transform school districts, along with the ongoing implementation of these strategies in one Connecticut district, were discussed during a recent edWebinar, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network. The presentation featured Raymond McNulty, President of the Successful Practices Network, and Michael Conner, Ed.D., Superintendent of the Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut.

McNulty emphasized the disruptive transformations now needed will be far easier and more effective if they are done with the staff and community rather than to them, so a commitment to understanding and respecting different viewpoints is an essential part of the innovation process.

Creating a Framework for Innovation

One of the major obstacles to innovation in education has been the focus on best practices rather than next practices, and McNulty pointed out there is validity to using what has been proven to work, as well as to trying new approaches that may work better for students who have not been succeeding with traditional methods and materials.

To recognize and work through this sort of situation, McNulty recommends avoiding the “polarity stereotyping” of traditionalists and progressives, in which each group views the other as representing policies they disfavor while portraying their own views as having no downside. Instead of this either/or model, there should be a “yes, and…” approach that embraces both continuity and change.

This can be accomplished by dialogue focused on understanding and addressing the concerns of both groups. The discussions should include a recognition of what the resistors value and are concerned about losing, and what problems the innovators are trying to solve. An iterative process can then begin with the innovators who are willing to experiment, and next include those who want to see and understand how the new practices actually work, and finally include those who want to see positive results before changing.

Meanwhile, there can continue to be a tactical approach focused on improving what schools are currently doing, as well as an adaptive approach designed to invent a better future. District leaders will need to have and communicate a clear, powerful vision about where the school system is headed in order to guide the way forward. Also needed are the agility to respond rapidly to evolving situations, and the ability to build a culture of change that engages and empowers the staff and community.

Innovation and Implementation for Equity

Discussing the ways innovation strategies are being implemented in his district, Dr. Conner categorized the past, present, and future as Before COVID, During COVID, and After COVID, pointing out a radical shift in education occurred on Friday the 13th in March of 2020, when schools were shut down across the United States. As the disruptions and changes continue to unfold during 2021, he recommends using an adaptive system design to change the structures and collective mindsets within school districts.

Dr. Conner differentiated the old industrial education model—with its time-defined calendar year and school day, its A-F letter grading system, and its monolithic/didactic methods of instruction—from a more innovative and equity-focused model that includes an emphasis on growth and competency, prototyping and experimentation, a culturally responsive and personalized curriculum, and career pathways.

Key aspects of the innovative model include the use of data and analytics, as well psychometricians and statisticians, to drive instruction that can be enhanced by the use of digital resources and artificial intelligence, which can complement content and help each student spend more time working in a zone of proximal development. This approach can also be used to help students identify and navigate career pathways that will help them become ready for college and 21st century careers.

Dr. Conner also identified three levels of innovation that need to occur, starting with the application of efficiency logic to smaller systems like classroom design. The next level is product innovation, which changes the dynamic of what occurs in the classroom, and the third level is growth disruption that eliminates some of the industrial model practices which are no longer effective.

The longer-term vision, which is starting to become a reality in Dr. Conner’s district, is schools will become hubs, teachers will become learning accelerators, and students will become co-authors of their own education. A new innovation center in the district is designed to apply this approach through its focus on biotech, computer science, and aerospace instruction, which will include an emphasis on experimental, hands-on learning, and the development of critical thinking, problem solving, and coordination skills.

McNulty and Dr. Conner noted challenging the status quo requires a high level of trust in the system, which develops as a result of districts and their leaders demonstrating competence, integrity, and reliability. To succeed with their innovations, district leaders also need to deliver high-quality value for their customers—the students and their families—and adapt the language used in their districts to acknowledge that the leaders, educators, and students are all learners during this volatile and complex period of change.

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.

Watch the Recording

Listen to the Podcast

About the Presenters

Raymond J. McNulty is the president of the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) and the Successful Practices Network (SPN). He is also a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education. Prior to that, Ray was Dean for the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University which Fast Company Magazine named the 12th most innovative organization in the world in its World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies. Ray has served as Chair of the National Dropout Prevention Network and was the chief learning officer for Penn Foster, a global leader in online education. He also was a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he worked with leading educators on improving our nation’s high schools. Ray is a past president of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and author of It’s Not Us Against Them: Creating the Schools We Need, published in 2009 by the International Center.

An educator since 1973, Ray has been a teacher, vice principal, principal, and superintendent. From 2001-2003, he served as Vermont’s Education Commissioner. During his tenure, he focused on aligning the Department of Education’s work on three key issues: early education, educator quality, and secondary school reform.

Ray is a presenter at the state, national, and international levels on the need for school systems to accept the challenges that lie ahead. He is committed to raising performance standards for both teachers and students and to building solid connections between schools and their communities. Ray believes strongly that education systems cannot wait for the children and challenges to arrive at school; rather, schools need to reach out and help forge solutions.

Michael T. Conner, Ed.D. is the superintendent for Middletown Public Schools in Middletown, CT. Previously, he served as Chief Academic Officer (Norwalk, CT), Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning (Willimantic, CT) and Principal of Augusta Lewis Troup School (New Haven, CT). Dr. Conner obtained his Bachelor of Arts in elementary education/humanities from Lasell University. He also received his Master of Science degree from the University of Bridgeport, Sixth-Year Diploma from Southern Connecticut State University, and doctorate in education from Cambridge College. Dr. Conner completed the prestigious Executive Leadership Program at the University of Connecticut and attended the Harvard Superintendents Institute. He also completed the prestigious AASA National Urban Superintendents Academy (cohort III) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Conner obtained his graduate diploma in business analytics from Harvard University and is currently completing an advanced certificate (ACE) in management, innovation, and technology at MIT.

For his overall efforts, Dr. Conner was recognized by The Network Journal as a “Top 40 Under 40” recipient. He was also recognized by the Connecticut NAACP (100 Most Influential Blacks in Connecticut), Middlesex NAACP (Education Award), Eleven28 Entertainment (100 Men of Color Award), Cross Street African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Rev. George E. Battle Senior Education Award), Middlesex United Way (Community Leadership Award), and DECA Inc. (National Administrator of the Year). Under his leadership, Middletown Public Schools was recognized as a 2019 AASA/SPN National Innovation and Transformational District, of which only 17 districts nationally received this distinction. Also, Middletown Public Schools received the honor as a 2020 National Innovative District by the International Center for Leadership in Education. Dr. Conner was featured in AASA’s School Administrator magazine for his article entitled What Mentoring Means to a New Superintendent of Color. This past August, Middletown Public Schools was featured in Time Magazine and AASA’s School Administrator magazine with Ray McNulty highlighting their innovative blended learning model that underpins the latest research around personalized learning using artificial intelligence. Most recently, Dr. Conner was selected by The School Superintendents Association (AASA) and Successful Practices Network (SPN) to serve on the Learning 2025: National Commission on Student-Centered, Equity-Focused Education as a commissioner. He will be making recommendations on innovative and equity-based practices for agencies and districts throughout the country to adopt holistically.

About the Host

Dr. Valerie Truesdale joined AASA early in 2019 as the assistant executive director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.

Join the Community 

Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.


The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation, and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships, and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.

Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.