New Office Investigates Innovations in Education

Denise Airola
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Denise Airola

Tom Kimbrell had been thinking for quite a while about how Arkansas would respond after the U.S. Department of Education granted flexibility to states in how they meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

The Arkansas commissioner of education put one of his ideas into action this year by working with the University of Arkansas to establish the Office of Innovation for Education. Denise Airola was hired to direct the office, which is based in the College of Education and Health Professions.

Airola has worked with Kimbrell and other Arkansas Department of Education officials for years, most recently as a research specialist with the Arkansas Leadership Academy and before that as assistant director of the National Office for Research on Measurement and Evaluation Systems. Both organizations are affiliated with the College of Education and Health Professions.

With NORMES, Airola served as liaison to the Arkansas Department of Education on the research and evaluation projects conducted for the state agency. Before coming to the university, Airola taught in K-12 schools in California and Arkansas and worked as an administrator in the Fayetteville School District.

“I asked Dr. Kimbrell what his vision was for this office,” Airola said. “He said, ‘I really want you to think about that student who is in a school system that we’re working on improving. It may take five or 10 years for the school system to turn around but that student needs help now.’ And he said, ‘What if the way we help that students also helps that school system?’”

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education offered state educational systems some flexibility, Airola said, waiving some requirements in exchange for very specific plans for school improvement. By using these plans, districts would meet students’ needs while improving academic achievement at “priority schools,” described as those where students were not doing well. The states still would have to meet the underlying tenets of No Child Left Behind, she said.

“This gave Arkansas and other states the opportunity to think about how to adapt accountability systems to better meet the changing needs of their states,” she said. “It allowed the state to have conversations on high policy levels about what the next iteration of accountability would look like. We could be more responsive to what we see in the data.”

Airola’s committed to continuing the use of data-driven decision making. Her background is in the use of educational data to improve the educational system. She has a master’s degree in educational research and policy studies and a doctoral degree in educational statistics and research methods, both from the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas.

“What Dr. Kimbrell wants requires a different way of thinking,” Airola said. “Everyone at the agency (Arkansas Department of Education) has their jobs and no one is charged with this. Plus, someone needs to look at what can be done outside the box, someone who also has an understanding of how the box works. We need to know the boundaries and suggest ways to stretch or reconfigure them, and where necessary, just move beyond them.”

State officials have to put into place incentives and sanctions to meet the U.S. Department of Education guidelines that also fit into three initiatives currently underway in the state. These are the Common Core State Standards adopted by 45 states, the Next Generation Assessments being developed for use with the Common Core standards by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Teacher Excellence and Support System to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

“We will work with everyone from classroom teachers to the state’s educational leaders,” Airola said. “We’ll look at patterns of achievement. We’ll use data where we see success to help facilitate that type of success in other areas. And, we’ll pay attention to implementation.”

Airola said her work in Arkansas and as a consultant with the Oregon education system convinced her that success depends heavily on how an intervention is implemented.

“A lot of things are going on in classrooms across the nation,” she said. “The hard part is finding ways to replicate them elsewhere. We have to determine the implementation factors and supporting conditions that enable success. If we don’t have similar conditions, what do we do first to create them, or do we change the way we implement an idea? We have to be very careful in the implementation process so that we will know whether an investment is worthwhile.”

Some of the innovations Airola and her research assistant, Jackie Micheletto, have studied so far include different ways of offering blended learning that combine content delivered electronically with time spent in a traditional classroom, a longer school day with more flexibility for when students attend, redefinition of what “seat time” means from the typical understanding that the student has to be in a classroom in a school building for a set number of hours, and flipping classes so that the content is accessed digitally by the student outside the classroom and in-class time is used for group discussions or project work.

Many of these innovations are underway in schools as grassroots efforts. Supporting and spreading this spirit of innovation will be critical to personalizing instruction for students across the state, Airola said.

A new law, Act 601, passed in the recently completed Arkansas legislative session allows for “districts of innovation,” she said, which will allow schools to try innovative ideas that were formerly mostly tried only by charter schools.

“When we evaluate information, Dr. Kimbrell wants us to have the mindset that there are no boundaries,” Airola said. “We’ll connect people with innovation.”


Heidi Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions


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