Taking a Charter Network to Scale: IDEA Public Schools

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.

What are charter management organizations learning about scaling up their strategies?

Today’s post is based on a conversation between the Forum for Youth Investment and IDEA Public Schools’ Chief Human Assets Officer Audrey Hooks. She describes IDEA’s attempt to disseminate its guiding principles and knowledge, not just curriculum and materials.

IDEA Public Schools is a growing network of K-12 public charter schools serving more than 13,000 students in 28 schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley, Austin and San Antonio. In the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, IDEA leads 12 primary and 12 secondary public charter schools, alongside 20 Independent School Districts. For their i3 project, they formed a partnership with the Pharr, San Juan and Alamo Independent School District (PSJA). Together, the goal is to reform the human capital systems in both districts (IDEA and PSJA), from onboarding principals and teachers to developing them as leaders and evaluating them. “What is unique about our i3 project is that both districts have very similar needs and we are meeting those needs through solutions that include similar components,” reports Hooks. “But as we have gone through the grant and gotten more sophisticated in our thinking, each district has customized and personalized our offerings based on the unique cultures of each organization.” The two districts had explored working together for years, and the i3 grant gave them the opportunity. In particular, it created the opportunity for each district to test out strategies to build capacity internally rather than bring in outside firms or consultants, and to build the necessary district infrastructure to support those changes.

Over the course of this work, one of the key lessons that IDEA and PSJA have learned about scaling is that ideas and best practices are more important than specific curriculum and training modules. According to Hooks:

The first thing we had to do was come together as a partnership to decide what we actually believed was most important to scale. Was it most important that adopters use the exact modules of our curriculum with fidelity? No, we decided. Instead we have a set of human capital principles that we think are the most important to get out there.

Those principles, gleaned from two years of doing this work, include:

1. Clearly define teacher and leader excellence. Use the definitions in every stage of the human capital pipeline – to hire the right people, onboard and train them, evaluate their performance, and make promotion decisions. 
It sounds simple says Hooks, but in reality, it is not a practice most districts follow. Hooks:

More often than not, the hiring team doesn’t talk to the coaching team, doesn’t talk to the people who do performance evaluation. The point is not that all districts need to use the same framework, just that you need a good, research-based framework that your organization is committed to using in a variety of settings – hiring, coaching and evaluation.

2. Success at all stages of human capital work can and should be measured in part by student achievement. 
Hook says:

For example, one critical measure of teacher success comes a year after teachers have been hired and involves looking at their impact on student achievement – that is one of the factors that we should use to determine if our hiring team and principals are making strong hiring choices.

3. Human capital development should be integrated into the everyday business of the district. In the IDEA/PSJA partnership, effective development is not a slate of programs but rather a philosophy of operation. “We actually made a decision not to create a separate i3 work group to create materials and an institute on professional development and training,” says Hooks.

Instead, we decided that it had to be embedded to ensure its sustainability. I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that if I were to leave, that five years from now the IDEA schools would still have our Principal in Residence Program, our Leadership Institute and all these great human capital developments that i3 kick started for us. They aren’t going anywhere. The reason they are so embedded is because we built them in house.

Embedding principles in a district is an important first step, but when the practices and strategies that enact these principles are allowed to develop internally they become part of the operating procedure for any new school that IDEA opens. That is significant given IDEA has a goal to open 56 more schools by the end of 2018. Hooks believes this learning in their i3 work has informed and enabled their scaling. Although she was always confident they could raise funds to build new buildings and get schools up and running, she was less certain about finding and training the talent. Now with the new Principal in Residence program and the Teacher Institute in place, she feels confident they can find the people to fill all those new schools.

One of the most critical lessons of this grant is that the partners are able to embed new human capital principles in two very different systems – one rapidly growing, relatively new organization and one established district serving twice as many students. When it comes to embedding new principles and practices in a well-established district like PSJA, change can be harder. Hooks acknowledges that in a district that has been around for more than 100 years, current practices may be more established and there are often more staff members to invest in any changes to fundamental practices. The PSJA staff who are implementing human capital practices have had great success thus far, which is a promising sign that the principles described above are still valid, regardless of setting, and that even in a district where change may be more difficult, having these guiding principles in place will make change easier than simply trying to import new training or curricula without that foundation.

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How Government Can Support Effective Innovation in Education

There are few aspects of life more thoroughly dominated by government than education. This is particularly true of educational innovation. Innovative programs and materials do often come from the private sector, but they are adopted only if government supports them.

There are two theories of government as regards improvements in education. One emphasizes regulation. For example, many states decree which textbooks can be used. Most states use this authority just to maintain minimum standards (e.g., paper weight, accuracy, non-discriminatory language), but others use their textbook adoption authority to force specific practices, such as use of phonics or certain approaches to teaching about evolution. None, however, use textbook adoption to encourage use of proven programs, which is apparently less important than paper weight. At the national level, regulations relating to Title I, charter schools, special education, and much more are intended to drive practice in a particular direction. Again, evidence plays little role. For example, study after study has found little effect of supplemental educational services (usually after-school remediation), yet SES has continued as a part of NCLB, taking billions from schools’ Title I budgets.

The alternative theory of government-supported innovation emphasizes fostering change by setting evaluation standards and letting the private sector innovate, as well as funding much R&D directly, and then helping scale up proven approaches. In medicine, companies come up with new devices to cure diseases, and those found in rigorous research to significantly improve outcomes are taken up at all levels of medical practice, with government support. Similarly, the Air Force might specify detailed characteristics it wants in a new pilotless drone and would then find bidders capable of building such a plane, adopting particular prototypes only if the plane ultimately meets the standards.

All areas of government also use regulation to promote certain policies and practices, but in education government almost never builds up practice from proven programs and practices. As a result, innovation in technology, textbooks, professional development, and other areas are driven by fashions, fads, politics, and marketing, not evidence.

At long last, this is beginning to change. The U.S. Department of Education is supporting the evaluation and scale-up of proven programs in its Investing in Innovation (i3) program. Recently, the Department proposed new regulations defining “strong” and “moderate” levels of evidence supporting educational innovations. These and other developments have not yet created an evidence-based system, far from it, but they are serious starts in the right direction.

Creating and then scaling up effective practices takes time, but its advantage is that if scale-up ensures effective implementation and continued positive outcomes, evidence-based reform builds from success to success and can learn over time what works under which circumstances. In contrast, innovation by national or statewide regulation is always a massive gamble, and most evaluations of grand national or statewide policies find that they made little difference.

Government by regulation may be good for maintaining the current system, but real change in any field depends on research and development. Government policies for education need to balance regulation with innovation, evaluation, and dissemination of proven programs and practices.

Shifting Government from “Who Gets What” to “What Works”

Every political science student knows the old adage that the focus of government is “Who gets what?” That is, government takes in taxes and then distributes benefits, and contending groups pressure government to increase the proportion of those benefits delivered to their constituents.

The “who gets what” dynamic exists as much in education as anywhere else, and perhaps even more, as education (like the military) is overwhelmingly a government-funded operation. Whenever the annual budget numbers come out for the U.S. Department of Education, advocacy groups scan every figure looking for gains or losses in their favored line items. There is nothing wrong with this, but the laser focus on line items may be distracting us from a focus on the more important question: are we getting better able to solve the enduring problems of education? Do we know more about “what works” and how to use public funds to support proven approaches?

The Obama Administration’s Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative is an excellent example of a “what works” approach rather than a “who gets what” mentality. It is funding a broad array of educational innovations to scale up proven ones and help developers of new approaches build capacity and effectiveness. Senator Bennet is advancing a proposal to create a set-aside in i3 for a new ARPA-ED initiative, modeled after the Defense Department’s successful DARPA. Unique to this proposal, discussed this week at the American Enterprise Institute, is that it would explicitly avoid “who gets what” structure and would focus directly on creating groundbreaking new technological capabilities in education. In fact, when prodded about how this would benefit rural communities, the Department of Education’s Jim Shelton boldly indicated that that kind of small thinking would not transform the way we educate kids in this country, and we instead need to focus on capabilities above special interests.

The i3 funding is unprecedented, but it is still a tiny slice of federal education funding. Over time, it is sure to increase the number of proven, replicable programs from which schools can choose. If you view the $150 million per year i3 and a potential set-aside for ARPA-ED initiatives as a strategy to improve the impact of the $14 billion Title I program, you have to conclude that i3 and ARPA-ED are extremely cost-effective investments. Yet in the media, percentage increases in big line items like Title I are widely reported and debated, while the smaller line items, like research, development, and dissemination, are lost in the small print.

Government reports budget numbers annually and National Assessment of Educational Progress data every few years. Perhaps in addition to these reports, the federal government should publish a regular report on how much more we’ve learned over the past period about how to improve student learning and other outcomes. Maybe focusing on and identifying advances in proven capacity to improve student outcomes would encourage legislators to invest in this capacity and encourage educators to use it, perhaps moving education policy toward more of a “what works” focus.

I am more hopeful than ever that we are headed in the right direction, but we have a way to go to make evidence the centerpiece of a new reality of teaching children effectively.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Disclosure: Dr. Slavin’s organization, the Success for All Foundation, is a recipient of federal Investing in Innovation funds.