Excellence and No Excuses

I was recently interviewed for Alyson Klein’s EdWeek article on the evolution of Mitt Romney’s education policies since his time as governor of Massachusetts. Worth noting – this retrospective provides an important window into the left-right convergence around urban reform and failing schools.

As Paul Reville points out in the article, when Romney became governor in 2002, “we were on a rising course.”  MA had already passed the critical juncture when graduating high school students had taken the first high stakes tests in 2001 – ultimately with a 95 percent passing rate.

However, Romney took the opportunity to establish a new set of goals, focusing in particular on two areas where little progress had been made.  In partnership with Mass Insight and our Great Schools Coalition of business and university leaders, the governor proposed 1) multiple teacher investment strategies for a STEM excellence agenda and 2) the carrots and sticks required to move beyond the prior dismal attempts at state intervention in failing schools.

Mass Insight had in that period published a list of the 100 worst schools in the state and established the bottom 5 percent turnaround goal, which became the call to action in our 2007 national Turnaround Challenge Report and ultimately the turnaround goal of the Obama Administration.  The bolder actions Romney and a few other governors had advocated earlier had, by this time, developed support from reformers on the left and right concerned about the failure to improve urban schools and paved the way for a more aggressive national strategy.

No Excuses

As a new SIG impact report was released this week from Washington State, a state that still appears to be a “light touch” disciple, it is worth re-circulating the North Carolina SIG evaluation published last fall from a “No Excuses” state.

A detailed ground level report of SIG impact in 30 schools, the NC evaluation painted a clear picture where comprehensive strategies were underway, including “smart” staff turnover in the improving schools among the 30:

“We found that in the improved schools, the turnaround process began in virtually every case with the appointment of a new principal who replaced a substantial number of teachers [at least one-third] and sparked a series of changes focused on key areas of school operation.”

The WA State report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education is an interesting bookend for the similar policy conclusions from North Carolina – just a different set of on-the-ground results for two states and two levels of political will.  It’s worth noting that even among the small sample in the WA study, there were a few schools that adopted a more comprehensive strategy and saw early improvements.

The NC study conducted by the Consortium for Educational Research and Evaluation looked at 30 low-achieving elementary, middle, and high schools in North Carolina to see what made the difference between the leaders (double digit gains in student achievement) and laggards (little to no gains).

The common takeaways from both studies in addition to the focus on capacity-building and staff:

  • Conditions: Commitment, climate, and culture.  In improved schools, increased accountability coupled with strong school goals and a laser-focus on student achievement produces gains.
  • District roles: Although the NC districts oddly seemed to play a smaller role than the state teams (which should raise concerns about sustainability), some were active partners.  Strong district leadership and support is paramount in any successful, sustainable turnaround.

Are SIG Dollars Making a Difference?

A mixed picture on SIG fund impact, according to reports from Mass Insight and other national groups at a turnaround conference organized by the Education Writers Association in Chicago this past Saturday.

The EWA convening kicks off a special editorial project of EWA, Education Week and the Hechinger Report to report on the impact of SIG investments.  More to come from the group in an April announcement.

Presentations from Dan Duke (University of Virginia), Sarah Yatsko (Univ. of Washington, CRPE), Tim Knowles (University of Chicago Urban Education Institute) and myself for Mass Insight reached similar conclusions:

  • Too much “light touch”, widespread state and district use of traditional interventions—a new evaluation, new plan, more coaching, more PD, and “hope for the best”— Over 70 percent of schools are choosing transformation under SIG….with likely marginal, isolated gains. (See the new report by CRPE on SIG).
  • School turnaround requires a long term commitment.  States/districts on the hook and focus and funds are leading to some likely gains (see USDOE report.)
  • Leading states are driving bolder actions:  SIG has provided resources and political cover for some states to drive their districts to take bolder, more effective action (Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, Louisiana, and Indiana are good examples). An excellent and well-researched NC evaluation report points to the impact of “smart staff replacement” strategies.” Also, this Mass Insight report highlights improved state models for SIG.

Other conclusions from the EWA conference:

  • There are no silver bullets – effective interventions pull multiple levers in a comprehensive strategy.
  • Sustain the gains – there has been too little focus on how to sustain gains produced through turnaround interventions. New district structures and systems are needed to support clusters of schools.

Next week we’ll hear more from one of my fellow presenters, Jennifer Husbands from AUSL, on the importance of conditions and capacity building in successful turnaround.

Questions We Wish the Feds, States, Districts (and CEP) Would Ask

Yesterday, we chastised the Center on Education Policy for asking questions about turnaround that don’t mean much. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we had answers to questions like:

  1. Which states and districts have changed their staffing policies (inc. collective bargaining) to give turnaround school leaders true autonomy over hiring, firing, budgeting, and culture?
  2. What percentage of district SIG applications have been rejected as more of the same turnaround-light approaches that have been failing for years (more coaches, webinars and PD, etc.)?
  3. Are external partners required to sign performance contracts before getting the jobs? If so, what are they being held accountable for in year 1,2 and 3? Has anyone lost a contract yet for non-performance?
  4. What percentage of external partners have a 5-day-a-week presence in the schools they’re supposed to be transforming?
  5. What percentage of grants are being used to establish coherent feeder patterns of high schools, middle schools and elementary schools … instead of giving one-off grants to individual schools?
  6. How will states and districts know if they’re successful? How will the public hold them accountable for keeping their promises? Are these promises even public?

These are questions with answers worth knowing.

Restructure or Fail (Part 2)

Mass Insight president and founder Bill Guenther responds to this week’s series from Mike Contompasis, former Boston Public Schools superintendent, on how Boston’s district reform should have been bolder.

Districts Have One More Chance to Take Bolder Action and Share Success With the Best Charters

The Strategy: Community Clusters with Accountable Units

Bold district superintendents, with state and federal support, can apply these lessons to recruit a team of talented and experienced school leaders and bring inside the district the innovative and performance-based culture the best charters have established outside the district.  And in doing so, they can provide the seamless preK-12 support students and families need.

Establish new small units inside districts responsible and accountable for a community cluster of schools, including a high school and its feeder schools.  We call these Lead Partner units.  In the charter world, they’re called charter management organizations.

Give that small unit of four to five staff control over the things that count: people, time, money and program, and make every outside partner or consultant in the school cluster a subcontractor to the unit. In return for this autonomy, hold the unit and its leadership accountable for results with a 3-to-5-year performance contract.

It’s the difference between blowing up the system and starting from scratch … or breaking up the system and rebuilding a smarter district from the school cluster level up.

This kind of boldness offers the best of both worlds. These “mini-districts” have all the benefits of charters, mainly operating flexibility and accountability. Plus all the benefits of an existing infrastructure. Why should school networks have to reinvent services such as procurement and enrollment, where the benefits of scale are obvious? It’s not surprising that the best school reform networks, like KIPP and AUSL, have figured this out.

First-generation, at least partial models for this strategy have been put into place in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

Klein came the closest to this approach in New York City with his empowerment zones, networks and partnership support organizations. But the school networks were too large and had no coherence or community connection.  The partner units – both inside and outside – were too “light touch” with no accountability for student results.

The next 10 years will be the proving ground for traditional districts. Failure will lead to continued decline and thousands of students still trapped in dysfunctional schools.  It’s time more district superintendents and state education agencies learned from the first generation of district redesign, including their own mistakes.

In the process, we might give students and families the choice of good charters and good district schools, a portfolio of excellent school clusters that has been the “holy grail” for reformers for more than a decade.

Restructure or Fail: Urban Districts Have One More Chance to Compete With Charters

Mass Insight president and founder Bill Guenther responds to this week’s series from Mike Contompasis, former Boston Public Schools superintendent, on how Boston’s district reform should have been bolder.

Part 1

Joel Klein in New York City. Michael Barber in Great Britain. Mike Contompasis in Boston. Three very successful leaders of large school systems. And looking back in different ways, they all say the same thing. “We should have been bolder.”

Time and again, accomplished school leaders have underestimated the ability of an ingrained, risk-averse culture to resist reform, sometimes aggressively (think the UTLA in Los Angeles), often passively (“this too shall pass”).  A lot more boldness is needed – particularly in re-thinking the structure and devolving accountability in urban districts.  And unions need to be part of this boldness or they will share the responsibility with management for failure.

But what kind of bold action makes sense?

Public charter school proponents argue the old system can’t be changed, that we should abandon that ship – it’s easier to build a new culture in a new organization.

They have a point.

However, the practical and moral problem with the charter-only, “abandon ship” strategy is that after 15 years, there are too few successful charters and not enough high quality preK-12 charters to provide a viable alternative to district schools.

So for the foreseeable future, a bold and successful district alternative to the best charters is an equity issue for kids, not just an argument among adults.

To shape that district alternative means learning from charters and starting with three big assumptions that lead to the same strategy.

Assumption #1:  The Central Office Is Broken – and Can’t Be Fixed in its Current Form

Charter proponents are right about one part of the old system:  the central office.  All the evidence suggests the mid-level bureaucratic culture in urban district central offices is impervious to all the money spent to “improve” it. Starting with HR – arguably the most important function and usually the weakest department in the district.

Successful principals know this well.  Even under Joel Klein in New York and Tom Payzant and Mike Contompasis in Boston, the best principals were renegades.  They broke every rule and found their way around the central office, including recruiting their own talent.

Ask the question: How many high-performing central offices can we point to in the last 10 years? Then make it really tough: How many of these exceptions have sustained performance over two superintendents?  Long Beach and Hillsborough come to mind.  Anywhere else?

In the traditional district structure, it’s difficult below the superintendent and above the school level to locate anyone or any unit that lives or dies based on accountability for student achievement.

It’s time we stopped tinkering with the central office and looked at how to decentralize those functions closer to schools, with accountability for performance.  Then allow much of the centralized office and its dysfunctional compliance culture to wither away.

Assumption #2:  Urban Students Need a Choice of PreK-12 Community  Clusters

It’s widely accepted that kids from poorer communities need an integrated preK-12 academic system – including a wraparound of community support.

Given the almost total failure to provide this model system for urban students anywhere, what’s the likelihood in the next 10 years that we’ll suddenly see whole urban districts transformed into this model?

So if we can’t change the whole system at once, why not start with “proof points” for fully integrated preK-12 community clusters of schools?   Devolution to a cluster of schools, not to individual schools.

The best charters also have reached this conclusion as they move to a vertically integrated model.  Charter management organizations have proven that full school autonomy is another dogma.  Schools are too small, too weak and too fragmented to operate successfully by themselves and provide the seamless support urban students need, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Assumption #3:  New Units Can Create New Cultures

The public and private sectors have successfully used new organizational units established outside traditional cultures to break out of old systems.

In government, think of the most effective special purpose authorities. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, for example, was set up outside of traditional Massachusetts state government with its own flexibilities and a board of public and private sector trustees. Over 20 years, three innovative executive directors and their specially recruited senior staff oversaw the $5 billion clean-up of Boston Harbor, producing consistent leadership for one of the best-managed projects in the country.

In the private sector, think IBM in the early ‘80s when a new special unit was set up to design the original IBM PC – in Boca Raton, Florida, more than a thousand miles away from the old mainframe culture at the Armonk headquarters.

Tomorrow, The Strategy: Community Clusters with Accountable Units…

Wendy’s Wisdom

Excellent oped by Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, slamming NYC’s public release of teacher ratings.

Key graf: “No single silver bullet will close our educational achievement gaps—not charter schools, or vouchers, or providing every child with a computer, or improving teachers. Each of these solutions may have merit as part of a larger strategy, but on their own they distract attention from the long, hard work required to ensure that our schools are high-performing, mission-driven organizations with strong teams, strong cultures and strong results.”

That’s also our experience on the Massachusetts Math and Science and Initiative, the largest high school reform project in the state, and our school turnaround work with states and districts in RI, NY, Louisiana, Delaware, Indiana and others moving toward comprehensive strategies with accountable partners. If you’re not pulling multiple levers simultaneously, you’re sunk.


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