Support Your Local Principal

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In big city school districts, the average superintendent only lasts for three years. That means that most barely find out what’s going on before they’re going elsewhere. There are good and capable people who are willing and able to serve as superintendents, but political turmoil, fractious school boards, and other factors make the job virtually impossible in many cities, which might as well install a revolving door in the superintendent’s office.

Yet despite their own experiences and those they know of in other city districts, urban school districts across the U.S. endlessly and even eagerly welcome new superintendents and expect them to trot into town on a great charger and slay all the dragons that the previous twenty-seven knights failed to slay. The result is constant churn at the top, which undermines any momentum toward reform that might otherwise develop. New superintendents frequently discard reforms introduced by their predecessor, so they can replace them with their own reforms. Yet none of the reforms have time to work, and little is learned from one superintendent to the next.

The problem is the system. It vests enormous power in superintendents and school boards, which are the least stable part of the system.

Things do not have to work this way. In England, where I work part time, head teachers (principals) have far greater autonomy and power, and local authority directors (superintendents) have far less. Each school has its own governing board, which hires the head teacher. The national government plays a stronger role in England than it does in the U.S., so local head teachers pay a lot of attention to national policies, but much less to their local leadership.

Why might such a system be beneficial in the U.S., or within states? Mainly, it would reduce the churn. Unlike superintendents, principals in the U.S. spend a long time in their districts, perhaps their entire career. They may move from school to school locally, but they know about and care about their communities.

In England, students can attend any school that has room for them, so there is a competition for the best head teachers, who want to establish a strong reputation for competence and effectiveness in their area. Yet head teachers (like principals in the U.S.) are usually below the radar in city politics. A U.S. system that expands principals’ authority and independence could take schools out of the daily struggles in city politics and press.

Perhaps most importantly, enhancing school autonomy could allow school leaders to make essential choices of programs, materials, software, and so on, perhaps based on evidence of effectiveness (if national or state governments encouraged and incentivized them to do so). Choices of schoolwide programs should be made by principals, teachers, and parents, according to the needs and resources of the local community. Among other things, making such choices at the school level increases the chances that school staff will implement their chosen programs with fidelity, enthusiasm, and care.

One could imagine a structure in which school staffs might select among proven whole-school reform models and then affiliate with like-minded peers in regional or national networks. Local districts might remain responsible for buildings and busses, but the key practices of the school might be based on a common philosophy and identification with high-status networks, each of which provides professional development and materials proven to make a substantial difference in student outcomes.

Evidence-based reform would work better in a system emphasizing greater school autonomy, because the people choosing proven programs are the ones held accountable for their outcomes. Principals and their staffs should have opportunities to choose among proven programs and then implement the heck out of them, affiliating with peers who serve similar communities and hold similar values, rather than being directed by one superintendent after another to do whatever each wants to do.

Principals and teachers, not superintendents, are the permanent source of professionalism, committed to the success of the children in a local area. Effective systems should build on their strengths.

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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.

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.

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: 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.”