The Maryland Challenge

As the Olympic Games earlier this summer showed, Americans love to compare ourselves with other countries. Within the U.S., we like to compare our states with other states. When Ohio State plays the University of Michigan, it’s not just a football game.

In education, we also like to compare, and we usually don’t like what we see. Comparisons can be useful in giving us a point of reference for what is possible, but a point of reference doesn’t help if it is not seen as a peer. For example, U. S. students are in the middle of the pack of developed nations on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for 15 year olds, but Americans expect to do a lot better than that. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) allows us to compare scores within the U.S., and unless you’re in Massachusetts, which usually scores highest, you probably don’t like those comparisons either. When we don’t like our ranking, we explain it away as best as we can. Countries with higher PISA scores have fewer immigrants, or pay their teachers better, or have cultures that value education more. States that do better are richer, or have other unfair advantages. These explanations may or may not have an element of truth, but the bottom line is that comparisons on such a grand scale are just not that useful. There are far too many factors that are different between nations or states, some of which are changeable and some not, at least in the near term.

If comparisons among unequal places are not so useful, what point of reference would be better?

Kevan Collins, Director of the Education Endowment Foundation in England (England’s equivalent to our Investing in Innovation (i3) program), has an answer to this dilemma, which he explained at a recent conference I attended in Stockholm. His idea is based on a major, very successful initiative of Tony Blair’s government beginning in 2003, called the London Challenge. Secondary schools in the greater London area were put into clusters according to students’ achievement at the end of primary (elementary) school, levels of poverty, numbers of children speaking languages other than English at home, size, and other attributes. Examination of the results being achieved by schools within the same cluster showed remarkable variation in test scores. Even in the poorest clusters there were schools performing above the national average, and in the wealthiest clusters there were schools below the average. Schools low in their own clusters were given substantial resources to improve, with a particular emphasis on leadership. Over time, London went from being one of the lowest-achieving areas of England to scoring among the highest. Later versions of this plan in Manchester and in the Midlands did not work as well, but they did not have much time before the end of the Blair government meant the end of the experiment.

Fast forward to today, and think about states in the U. S. as the unit of reform. Imagine that Maryland, my state, categorized its Title I elementary, middle, and high schools according to percent free lunch, ethnic composition, percent English learners, urban/rural, school size, and so on. Each of Maryland’s Title I schools would be in a cluster of perhaps 50 very similar schools. As in England, there would be huge variation in achievement within clusters.

Just forming clusters to shame schools low in their own cluster would not be enough. The schools need help to greatly improve their outcomes.

This being 2016, we have many more proven programs than were available in the London Challenge. Schools scoring below the median of their cluster might have the opportunity to choose proven programs appropriate to their strengths and needs. The goal would be to assist every school below the median in its own cluster to at least reach the median. School staffs would have to vote by at least 80% in favor to adopt various programs. The school would also commit to use most of its federal Title I funds to match supplemental state or federal funding to pay for the programs. Schools above the median would also be encouraged to adopt proven programs, but might not receive matching funds.

Imagine what could happen. Principals and staffs could no longer argue that it is unfair for their schools to be compared to dissimilar schools. They might visit schools performing at the highest levels in their clusters, and perhaps even form coalitions across district lines to jointly select proven approaches and help each other implement them.

Not all schools would likely participate in the first years, but over time, larger numbers might join in. Because schools would be implementing programs already known to work in schools just like theirs, and would be held accountable within a fair group of peers, schools should see rapid growth toward and beyond their cluster median, and more importantly, the entire clusters should advance toward state goals.

A plan like this could make a substantial difference in performance among all Title I schools statewide. It would focus attention sharply where it is needed, on improved teaching and learning in the schools that need it most. Within a few years, Maryland, or any other state that did the same, might blow past Massachusetts, and a few years after that, we’d all be getting visits from Finnish educators!

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