School Reform Is Simpler – And More Complex – Than We Think

For the past half century, education reformers have worked hard to close achievement gaps. But as recent research by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, Laura Talpey and Ludger Woessmann confirms, so far, the gaps just won’t budge.

It’s tempting to throw our hands in the air. Personalized learning, increased school funding, social-emotional learning, test-based accountability, portfolio districts, common core standards – all these and more and have been tried, along with a consistent acknowledgment that silver bullets are unlikely to surface.

But recently, there has been a growing chorus of voices pushing the field to focus less on specific interventions and more on the systemic conditions that lead to results – sometimes called “coherence”, “educational practice”, or “execution.”

Or to put it another way: What are the gears that can turn strategic plans into powerful engines of student learning?

Over the past year, a team at Education Resource Strategies tried to answer this question by studying school systems that are gaining traction with black, Latinx, and low-income students.

We reviewed the literature and talked to experts and district leaders to find these examples of progress, and then ran the nominees through a set of performance filters such as student growth and access to rigorous coursework. We selected eight school systems to study that combined creative approaches with above-average results.

The eight school systems (Fresno Unified School District, Springfield Empowerment Zone, FirstLine Schools, San Diego Unified School District, Dallas Independent School District, KIPP Bay Area, Highline Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools), profiled in our new Districts at Work series range from large, traditional districts to charter networks, to one autonomous zone within a district.

They faced familiar student performance challenges such as unacceptable graduation rates, declining performance in middle schools and stubbornly low-performing schools, all in the context of tight budgets. To address these challenges, they had chosen from a small set of clear strategic priorities such as getting the right people in the right roles, differentiating and expanding student time and attention, organizing resources for job-embedded, curriculum-connected professional learning, and leveraging the community to support students and families.

But what set these school systems apart is that they didn’t stop there.

We found one common ingredient: in these school systems, the central office supported schools by: (1) setting a clear theory of action for how schools will implement the strategic priority, (2) following through with tough resource trade-offs, and (3) redesigning processes—such as timelines, tools, and mindsets—to support schools’ ability to implement the changes.

We think of these as the three gears that effectively power the school systems’ strategic priorities and underpin inspiring student results.

From “Districts at Work” by ERS.

For example, in 2014, Dallas Independent School District had significant student performance disparities across schools, and low-income students lacked equitable access to high-performing schools. The district made one of its strategic priorities to transform student learning at low-performing schools.

Then, Dallas ISD defined a clear theory of action for how schools would shift resources to make this strategic priority a reality and how central office departments would organize to support those schools. For example, low-performing schools needed to attract and retain highly-effective teachers and principals, so they invested in $5,000-$15,000 stipends for these roles. They needed to help the teachers they had improve, so they create job-embedded professional learning time in which coaches sat “elbow to elbow” with teachers. The schools also needed programming to engage all learners, so they changed schedules to add instructional time and stay open until 6:00 p.m. two to three days per week for extracurricular activities, tutoring, and dinner. Meanwhile, at the central office, as an example, the recruiting team committed to giving additional services to the lowest-performing schools, including more frequent site visits from recruiters, daily monitoring and rapid response to teacher vacancies, and earlier access to teacher candidates during hiring season.

Since 2014, Dallas ISD students increased proficiency on the state assessment from 27 percent to 40 percent, and the number of schools labeled “Improvement Required” by the state accountability system dropped from 43 to 4. Now, only 1 percent of students are enrolled in “Improvement Required” schools, down from 15 percent of students.

The charter sector offers us examples of high-quality implementation as well. In 2014, student performance in FirstLine Schools, a charter network in New Orleans, fell short of where its leaders wanted it to be. Principals struggled to meet the needs of new teachers, especially as schools transitioned to more rigorous student learning standards.

So, system leaders set a strategic priority to scale up professional learning support to teachers. FirstLine then made resource and process shifts to support that strategy. For example, the network office invested in curriculum so that teachers spent less time designing lessons from scratch. Then, each school adopted a bell schedule that enabled cross-school professional learning: During a two-year transition period, teachers had an entire day per week to work together with teachers in their same grade and subject. They hired content leads who worked with principals to improve their professional learning sessions. In parallel, system leaders engaged principals and teachers in transparent dialogue about how these changes affected their roles.

Four years later, three of New Orleans’ top five highest-growth elementary schools are in the FirstLine network. According to performance evaluations, teachers are delivering more engaging instruction, and students’ overall proficiency has increased by 10 percentage points in math.

Is it these systems’ coherent approach to strategy development and implementation that explains their recent progress in achieving their goals? Of course, the best practice case study approach to this research does not allow us to draw causal conclusions. Yet the similarities across all eight systems that we document in Districts at Work are striking, and our organization’s experience working with school districts over more than 10 years strongly suggests that they are unusual.

On one level, these stories reflect common sense best practices in operations and management. But we know that coordinating strategy and implementation across large school systems and multiple stakeholders is extremely difficult. And even the anecdotes above do not capture the full picture of the coordinated efforts required. (For more on each story and for other profiles, visit Districts at Work.) But such case studies offer hope that it is possible for a variety of school systems, from large to small, to gain traction and see results while addressing systemic challenges. Though the resource shifts and policy changes required can be controversial, we can build the case for more of what works through solid implementation followed by collection of data on impact.

Of course, addressing educational equity and excellence is not a simple machine that you can set up, fine tune, and run. It’s a complex, human-centered endeavor. But we can make progress by choosing the right strategies and following through on clear theories of action with connected resource and process shifts. This can power the engine of learning and enable the system redesign we need to ensure that all children have access to strong schools.

Karen Hawley Miles is CEO and President of ERS, a national nonprofit that partners with district, school and state leaders to transform how they use resources (people, time, and money) to create strategic school systems that enable every school to prepare every child for tomorrow. Karen Baroody is ERS’ Managing Partner & lead author on the Districts at Work series.

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