Lessons from Innovators: Children’s Learning Initiative

 

Children’s Literacy Initiative2013-02-19-HP4Image21813.jpg

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.”

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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.

What Schools Can Learn From McDonald’s and Starbucks

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Courtesy of McDonald’s

I was inspired to write this blog post while on a family vacation in northern Wisconsin, on Lake Superior. In this sparsely populated area, there is a Wal-mart, a Curves, at least two McDonald’s and outlets of many other national chains, as there are in every corner of our great and diverse nation. Every one of these enterprises started somewhere, figured out how to do what it does very well, and then learned how to maintain quality and effectiveness at scale. Each makes adaptations to local circumstances and needs, but their national companies go to great efforts to see that all maintain a set of standards of quality.

Yet in education, people seem to think that scaling up of proven programs is impossible or even undesirable, no matter how effective or attractive the programs may be. Instead, each of our more than 100,000 public schools in 15,000 districts is expected to invent its own path to excellence. Teachers participate in professional development, to be sure, but this is not the same as replicating effective programs.

One objection to the entire idea of scaling up proven programs is that ‘a school is a lot more complex than a Starbucks.’ Yes it is. But that very complexity should make schools more, not less, likely to seek reliable, replicable solutions to the parts of their complex task that can be solved this way, so that the professionals in the school can focus their efforts on the parts that cannot be. For example, there is no reason every school has to make up its own math program. Yet almost all schools buy books, rather than programs, give teachers a half-day in-service, and then expect teachers to figure out how to teach the content of the book to their kids, perhaps using audiovisuals or technology, but not a well-specified, research-proven approach.

There are proven, replicable programs for every level of mathematics (and other subjects). By ‘proven,’ I mean that they have been repeatedly tested in comparison to ordinary practices and found to be more effective. Schools may be more complex than Starbucks, but a math class at a given grade level in one school is a lot like a math class in another. There is no reason that teachers or school leaders could not choose among the several proven programs available to them, or perhaps invest locally in creating and rigorously evaluating something even better. Yet this is rarely what happens.

To those who would argue that America already has far too much ‘scaling up’ of Wal-marts and McDonald’s, I’d agree, but I’d also point out that this is just a matter of taste. In education, we can measure learning gains due to a given program. If a program is known to routinely increase learning more than ordinary methods, educators should embrace it, whether or not it was made locally. When your child is ill, do you prefer a proven treatment from far away, or an untested treatment made up in your local hospital?

Scaling up proven programs has its complexities, but it is not fundamentally different from scaling up any enterprise and maintaining its quality in each location. In fact, scaling up is an American specialty. In education there are several examples of effective scale-up. What is lacking is not the know-how, but the will. Government could readily encourage or incentivize schools to choose from among proven programs, and it could help non-profit providers of proven programs to build capable organizations to scale up their operations. The Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program is making a start in this direction, devoting substantial resources to help various programs develop their evidence base and scalability. Yet even i3 will not have a lasting impact if government at all levels does not begin to encourage school leaders to learn about and, if they wish, adopt proven programs to solve the predictable problems that all schools must solve.

Lessons from Innovators: Children’s Learning Initiative

2013-02-19-HP4Image21813.jpg

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.”

Invest in What Works

Amidst all the hue and cry about the fiscal cliff and the debt limit, a voice of reason made a plea so reasonable and nonpartisan that it was of course ignored.

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Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), in the December 20th Congressional Record, wrote a pleafor investing taxpayer dollars in what works. “…we have a responsibility to our taxpayers to improve outcomes for young people and their families by driving Federal funds more efficiently toward evidence-based, results-oriented solutions.”On a particularly encouraging note, Senator Landrieu noted that a bipartisan consensus is growing in support of programs such as Investing in Innovation (i3) and the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), which support scaling up of proven programs in education and social services, respectively.

There is never a good time to waste taxpayers’ money, but in a time of fiscal belt-tightening, the need to focus resources on approaches proven to work is particularly compelling. What taxpayers want is better schools and more effective social services, not just more spending.

Today, there is a growing set of programs that have been proven to work in large experiments under realistic conditions. Programs such as i3 and SIF help build up the “shelf” of proven programs and help them begin to scale up, and this is unprecedented. But it is time to move to the next step: Encouraging schools and social services agencies to make use of proven programs.

For example, i3 is a $150 million a year program designed to scale up proven models, but Title I, the largest federal education program at $15 billion a year, is untouched by the evidence-based reform movement. The role of evidence is growing in federal funding, but as Senator Landrieu argues, we need to “target investments in interventions with the strongest evidence of effectiveness” across the board, not just in demonstrations.

Wise use of federal resources is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is a moral imperative, both in the bond of trust between taxpayers and government and in ensuring effective services to vulnerable young people.