Stop the Churn: How Federal Policy Adds Chaos to Schools

I just read a very interesting book called Improbable Scholars, by David Kirp of the University of California at Berkeley. In it, Kirp tells stories of his more than two years of observing schools in Union City, New Jersey, a mostly poor, Hispanic district that has done well on state tests for many years. He describes a caring, planful, well-organized district led for many years by an outstanding educator, Sandy Sanger. Kirp also gives brief descriptions of two other outstanding districts, Aldine, Texas and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Kirp notes some commonalities across these different districts, including an emphasis on high-quality preschools and intelligent use of data. However, most importantly, he describes them as tortoises rather than hares, places that build up great staff and great schools bit by bit over long periods.

Necessary for the “tortoise” approach, however, is something in very short supply in urban districts: Stability. All of Kirp’s outstanding districts have had superintendents who stayed in office for a decade or more, far more than the national urban average of 2 ½ years.

Our experience working with urban districts is very much the same. Districts that consistently do well with disadvantaged and minority students – Steubenville, Ohio; Alhambra, Arizona; Geary County, Kansas; Victoria, Texas and many more – are not the big headline districts that change superintendents the way Donald Trump changes interns. Instead, these are places in which dedicated educators work for a decade or more to progressively improve outcomes for all children.

As I mentioned recently in Power to the Schools, the problem is that federal, state, and local policies promote churn rather than stability. Heavy pressure on superintendents to boost scores right now or risk firing lead to surface solutions (or cheating of various kinds) rather than long-term planning and coalition building. Policies such as state takeovers and school closures rarely work and they add immeasurably to churn. Michele Rhee and her broom, which swept out 90% of principals in the District of Columbia, is just one example.

The federal School Improvement Grants program requires that schools close down, become charters, or fire substantial proportions of their staff and principal to qualify for large grants. The result? We don’t know yet, but early reports focus on the difficulties this churn introduces to a school community.

I am not suggesting complacency about poor performance. Some school and district leaders have to go. But there is a difference between pruning bad apples and constantly uprooting trees. Wholesale and indiscriminate firings give whole districts a short-term, fearful mentality instead of a loving, strategic, and planful mentality.

Instead of relying on threats and firings, federal and state policies need to focus on assisting low-performing schools and districts to learn about and adopt proven models. This allows the good people already in the schools to work at high-quality implementation of strategies known to work, rather than dodging and weaving to avoid punishment. Incompetent administrators and teachers can be weeded out, but the ones who are doing their best can make better use of support than fear.

The first principle learned by every physician is “first, do no harm.” In education policy, this should also be a starting point. Churn itself undermines school success, so before introducing massive personnel changes, consider whether the personnel who are already there could be aided to do a better job. People don’t go into education to deliberately harm children. Education policies can and must use accountability to recognize and support progress without becoming a source of terror, cynicism, and churn.

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Lessons from Innovators: Children’s Learning Initiative

 

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The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the two foundations, will highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

Today’s post focuses on the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI). It is based on conversations between the Forum and CLI’s Executive Director, Kelly Hunter, on what it takes to maintain fidelity to a complex model in light of constant change in urban school districts. A summary of her comments is as follows.

Plan for change and stick to your core. School systems are in constant flux and developers must be prepared for instability. The Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) tries to do that by using training, coaching and other supports to promote quality teaching to ensure that students in low performing, urban districts are proficient readers, writers and thinkers by the end of third grade. They are currently attempting to scale their effort to four new districts, Camden, Chicago, Newark and Philadelphia. This is easier said than done. Such districts experience frequent teacher and administrator turnover, school closures and mergers, and charter formation. Hunter suggests that if you want to implement with fidelity you first have to take a long and hard look at your model, make decisions about what is core, and then message those core ingredients in a way that respects where schools are coming from. Hunter notes, “We realized that we were struggling with messaging our change model. Even though research shows quality teaching is the number one school factor, funders and others were focused on other reforms that are sexy today. We didn’t want to focus on being negative or bad mouthing other reforms. We just knew we had to be strong in our position, share the research, and stay clear about our message and core ingredients.”

Identify the right champions. Kelly and her partners at CLI have learned that regional superintendents are a critical ingredient for sustained change. These area leaders have considerable influence over principals. “At the beginning,” Hunter notes, “we would get central office and schools to sign off, but not the regional superintendents. Then we would be off and running but all of a sudden the regionals were messaging something different than what we were doing.” When regional leaders began to understand the importance of fidelity and appreciate the core ingredients, they were then able to share their enthusiasm with principals or set standards to reinforce values and practices consistent with the model.

Partner to multiply resources and minimize obstacles. As they push towards scale, leaders at CLI have also learned the importance of cultivating new and varied partnerships. In addition to district staff, especially important partners include local funders and other program providers. Local funders are essential from a sustainability standpoint. It is also critical to partner with other entities that provide related services or technical assistance within a building or district – even when they involve a different subject matter or grade. These partnerships can allow for more comprehensive and coherent supports across disciplines and grade levels and minimize confusion among and competing demands on district staff. “It’s about enhancing what we are doing, not changing it,” comments Hunter. For example, in one i3 school in West Philadelphia, Drexel University was providing coaching services in math while CLI was providing literacy coaching. By working together, they were able to make coaching across these topics more consistent and communication more streamlined.

Scale back to scale up. Implementing innovative practices is complicated and labor intensive. Regional knowledge is necessary to help align external needs and resources with your own organizations’ demands and capacities. Networking locally is a great way to learn about a school, community or district, and to identify key stakeholders, funders, and advocates. But building this knowledge and these relationships takes staff, time, and energy. To address this challenge, CLI revisited their initial plan and decided to concentrate energy and resources on implementing the model deeply in four cities rather than spread themselves thinly across ten. According to Hunter, “we knew that in some communities, we didn’t have enough local influence, networking and outreach to raise the dollars and implement the model with fidelity. We were chasing dollars and our model was being compromised. Ultimately that compromises student achievement.” Instead, she says, “over time we hope to build our presence in and around our four hubs and eventually serve as a model for other communities as they scale to surrounding schools and districts.”

Lessons from Innovators: Strategic Literacy Initiative

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The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, will highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

“Teachers start to see that students can do more than they thought. And it changes the way they teach.”

Ruth Schoenbach has seen thousands of classrooms transformed by the teacher training programs offered by the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) at WestEd, a national education R&D lab with headquarters in San Francisco. She and Cynthia Greenleaf co-direct SLI. One of the most ambitious of SLI’s programs is a scale up of the Reading Apprenticeship model known as RAISE (Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education) funded through i3. RAISE seeks to significantly increase the literacy and content knowledge of more than 400,000 high school students and 2,800 teachers in five states, and to build local capacity to continue the work after the grant ends in 2015.

After three rigorous, randomized federally funded studies confirmed that students exposed to Reading Apprenticeship made real gains in literacy and had more positive feelings about themselves as readers and students, Schoenbach and her colleagues knew that their program worked – and so did school districts across the country. The increased demand for Reading Apprenticeship and the support of the i3 grant put RAISE at the front of the work, and SLI in the position of having to vastly scale up their operations.

This is where things got interesting. RAISE training is more than just a new set of routines for teachers to use in the classroom. It’s a transformation of teachers’ beliefs about themselves, their students, and the nature of literacy itself. The work can be messy, intense, and deeply personal – and now SLI had to figure out how to train scores of new facilitators to replicate their work with thousands of new teachers in every kind of community across the country.

“The challenge,” Schoenbach said, “is figuring out how to be true to the principles we know work, while being responsive to the incredible diversity of classrooms, students, and teachers in a school, a city, a state.” The problems of scaling up – holding fidelity to the model while responding nimbly to local needs – are familiar in many industries, and the common response in teacher professional development is to simplify. For RAISE the problem was making the knowledge of SLI’s professional development accessible to new audiences throughout the country, and simplifying was not the answer. Instead, the RAISE project engaged the notion of developing a generative scale up.

Generative Scale Up of RAISE
Innovative training of large numbers of facilitators is not the only aspect of RAISE that requires smart adaptation. “The key to our overall scale up of Reading Apprenticeship,” Ruth said, “is to incorporate the deep experience and knowledge of those at the state and local levels, and, at the same time, to preserve the core tenets of Reading Apprenticeship, without adding elements that are not integral to our instructional model.”

Meaningful local relationships turned out to be one key to flexible expansion. “Sometimes we in the SLI national office can identify problems from afar, either through our staff in the field or through formative evaluation,” Schoenbach says. “But we just don’t have our ears to the ground like our State Coordinators do. They are attuned to those all-important local moments when the context offers up a great opportunity – like a new state superintendent who wants to focus on the Common Core Standards or a possible link between Reading Apprenticeship and a statewide literacy initiative. Our local partners’ deep knowledge of Reading Apprenticeship helps them work with others to build new and robust connections between our framework and the needs, views, and contexts of the many different stakeholders in their states.”

Making the Invisible Visible for Professional Development Facilitators
The quality of our scale up will depend on the quality of our professional development facilitators,” said Schoenbach. “They are the heart of the transformation.” The staff and researchers at SLI have been working for years to make their unique inquiry-based professional development more accessible. They knew that facilitators – most of whom are full time teachers themselves – needed to be comfortable inviting teachers to explore their own disciplinary literacy in depth, and to challenge RAISE participants’ assumptions about students’ capacities and their own teaching approaches. What they did not know is just how much work that would take.

The i3 emphasis on innovation encourages grantees to adapt program plans to emergent project needs. This enabled SLI to respond to what they were learning from new communities and to develop and refine new program elements. One response was the development of a hybrid model for facilitators’ learning, one that included face-to-face as well as wrap around online support. Through innovations like this one, the RAISE project has begun to make the “invisible” elements of strong facilitation of Reading Apprenticeship professional development more visible to a wider and more diverse generation of facilitators.

Evidence-Based Practice: It’s About the Kids

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Many years ago, I heard a heart-rending story. There was a fourth grader in a school in Southern Maryland who had not learned to read. I’ll call him Patrick. A proven reading program, our Success for All model, came to the school and replaced the school’s haphazard reading approach with a systematic, phonetic model. By the end of the school year, Patrick was reading near grade level.

Toward the end of the year, Patrick’s mother came to the school to thank his teacher for what she’d done for him. She showed Patrick’s teacher a box in which Patrick had saved every one of his phonetic readers. “Patrick calls this his treasure box,” she said. “He says he is going to keep these books forever, so that if he ever has a child of his own, he can teach him how to read.”

Here is the importance of this story. If you follow my blogs in the Huffington Post, or other writings on evidence-based practice, they often sound a little dry, full of effect sizes and wonkiness. Yet all of those effect sizes and policy proposals mean nothing unless they are changing the lives of children.

Traditional educational practices are perhaps fine for most kids, but there are millions of kids like Patrick who are not succeeding in school but could be, if they experienced proven programs and practices. Patrick, at age 10, had the foresight to prepare to help his own child someday avoid the pain and humiliation he had experienced. Why is it so hard for caring grownups in positions of authority to come to the same understanding?

There is no problem in education we know more about than early reading failure. There are proven one-to-one and small-group tutoring programs, classroom interventions, and whole-school approaches like Success for All. They differ in costs, impacts, and practicability in various settings, but it is clear that reading failure can be prevented or remediated before third grade for nearly all children. Yet most struggling young readers do not receive any of these programs.

Patrick must be about 30 by now. Perhaps he has a child of his own. Wherever he is, I’m certain he remembers how close he came to a life of illiteracy and failure. I wonder if he still has his treasure box with the books inside it.

Patrick probably does not know where those books came from, the research supporting their use, or the effect sizes from the many evaluations. He doesn’t need to be a researcher to understand what happened to him. What he does know is that somehow, someone cared enough to give him an opportunity to learn to read, using a program proven to be effective.

Why does what happened to Patrick have to be such a rare occurrence? If you understand what the evidence means and you see educators and policy makers continuing to ignore it, shouldn’t you be furious?

Evidence-Based Practice: It’s About the Kids

2013-04-10-BlogImageReading.jpg

Many years ago, I heard a heart-rending story. There was a fourth grader in a school in Southern Maryland who had not learned to read. I’ll call him Patrick. A proven reading program, our Success for All model, came to the school and replaced the school’s haphazard reading approach with a systematic, phonetic model. By the end of the school year, Patrick was reading near grade level.

Toward the end of the year, Patrick’s mother came to the school to thank his teacher for what she’d done for him. She showed Patrick’s teacher a box in which Patrick had saved every one of his phonetic readers. “Patrick calls this his treasure box,” she said. “He says he is going to keep these books forever, so that if he ever has a child of his own, he can teach him how to read.”

Here is the importance of this story. If you follow my blogs in the Huffington Post, or other writings on evidence-based practice, they often sound a little dry, full of effect sizes and wonkiness. Yet all of those effect sizes and policy proposals mean nothing unless they are changing the lives of children.

Traditional educational practices are perhaps fine for most kids, but there are millions of kids like Patrick who are not succeeding in school but could be, if they experienced proven programs and practices. Patrick, at age 10, had the foresight to prepare to help his own child someday avoid the pain and humiliation he had experienced. Why is it so hard for caring grownups in positions of authority to come to the same understanding?

There is no problem in education we know more about than early reading failure. There are proven one-to-one and small-group tutoring programs, classroom interventions, and whole-school approaches like Success for All. They differ in costs, impacts, and practicability in various settings, but it is clear that reading failure can be prevented or remediated before third grade for nearly all children. Yet most struggling young readers do not receive any of these programs.

Patrick must be about 30 by now. Perhaps he has a child of his own. Wherever he is, I’m certain he remembers how close he came to a life of illiteracy and failure. I wonder if he still has his treasure box with the books inside it.

Patrick probably does not know where those books came from, the research supporting their use, or the effect sizes from the many evaluations. He doesn’t need to be a researcher to understand what happened to him. What he does know is that somehow, someone cared enough to give him an opportunity to learn to read, using a program proven to be effective.

Why does what happened to Patrick have to be such a rare occurrence? If you understand what the evidence means and you see educators and policy makers continuing to ignore it, shouldn’t you be furious?

Power to the Schools

With graduation season around the corner, I was recently thinking about a graduation speech I gave last year at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. During the speech, I briefly made the case for evidence-based reform. Everyone seemed happy about it, but shortly afterward I got a scathing email from one of the graduates, who was furious (among other things) that I had not mentioned the crumbling of school districts such as Philadelphia. To make up for my omission, I will herewith explain why large urban districts like Philadelphia keep falling apart, and what to do about it.

Large urban districts face huge challenges in terms of funding, urban pathologies, and the indifference of people who do not live in them. However, there is a structural problem that inhibits their progress, I believe. This is the power of superintendents. School boards across the country seek wise, good, honest, and capable people to serve in this outsized job. Then in two to three years they chuck them out and start over. The process causes endless turmoil and undermines faith in the whole school district. Sometimes districts get lucky with an outstanding superintendent, but this is the exception; it’s not that most urban superintendents aren’t capable, but that no human being can do the job they’re asked to do.

In contrast to superintendents, principals and teachers stay for many years in the district, perhaps for their entire careers. As a result, they care deeply about the district, and have vast on-the-ground experience.

In endlessly seeking the genius superintendent, school boards are putting all their faith in the most transient part of the system. Further, by placing so much authority in the central office, they risk creating a top-down structure in which principals and teachers have little say or importance, and do not exert their best efforts to improve the system beyond their own school or classroom.

This is not the only possible system. In the 1990’s in the U.S., there was a strong movement toward site-based management. There were superintendents, but they more often left key instructional and staffing decisions to principals and school staffs. In England, where I work part time, equivalents of superintendents exist but individual principals and their staffs are free to decide how to use their resources to greatest benefit for their students.

These structural changes would not solve America’s problems in themselves, but they could do so in combination with national policies favoring evidence-based reform. Imagine, for example, that there were many proven, effective strategies for improving the outcomes of elementary and secondary schools. School staffs might decide among themselves which of these strategies to implement. The schools affiliating with a given model within a state or region might all become part of a network that cuts across district lines, each of which has its own approaches and each its own sense of professionalism. Parents might choose to have their children attend one or another kind of school.

Such a structure could capture the best of what charters and magnet schools do, with a key difference: Each of the school models would have strong evidence of effectiveness, and would be held accountable as a network for maintaining quality and delivering outcomes. Local superintendents would still be needed to administer the schools, but the unit of reform, the key decision makers in matters that affect student achievement, would be school staffs.

Philadelphia is in meltdown right now, but like other urban districts it’s been in deep trouble for a long, long time. To put it and other urban districts on the mend, we need to build on their strengths, the teachers and principals dedicated to their kids, and give school staffs powerful, proven tools to get the job done.