More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report?

LG: There are some excellent papers and longer form pieces on this topic — we encourage leaders to also consult with those, many of which are linked in our stories  — but we wanted our project to draw people in, inspire them, encourage them, and get them asking questions for their own city. They don’t need to know what works everywhere to find something that might work for their situation.

We also interviewed potential audience members before the project to find out how they get their news, what they read/watch, and how they keep up with education stories. Everyone we spoke to devotes a substantial amount of time to keeping up with developments in the field, but they also like it in manageable “bites.”

Tanya Paperny: Our target audience also told us they were more likely to read something if it came recommended by a peer. We made sure to lead our site with the voices, images, and stories of the leaders behind these cities: superintendents, school founders, board members, etc.

JW: We wanted our readers to feel like they were having a conversation with the leaders we interviewed. A visually rich website with personal anecdotes helps us do that.

What common themes, if any, did you see across these geographically and contextually different cities?

LG: One of the things we heard everywhere we went, and the actual name of New York City’s program under Joel Klein, was “children first.” And while it seems an obvious idea in education, we all know in practice that adult issues often rise above those of students in the system.

JW: I agree with Lynne. It was remarkable how laser focused the leaders were on improving academic and life outcomes for students. Adult interests were way down the list of priorities. I’m not pandering here. I honestly expected more people to be operating from an ideological perspective.

TP: On a different note, it was interesting to see cross-pollination happening between these cities. Take Oakland for example: families stuck in failing schools got a tour of small schools in Chicago and New York City and were inspired to start the small autonomous schools movement. How do different cities learn from — or in some cases fail to learn from — what’s happening all the way across the country?

What other cities have interesting systems-level work that you’d like to explore?

JW: We didn’t write a story about Indianapolis, mainly because they haven’t seen the same academic gains as our case cities, but the district is doing some very innovative things and their charter sector is the best in the state. I think they’re pretty close to a breakthrough on outcomes.

The Texas Education Agency is doing a lot of work to support districts implementing what they call “systems of great schools.” It’s an example of how an SEA can provide incentives and conditions for districts interested in empowering schools.

Speaking of Texas, San Antonio is making a real run at integrating its schools in innovative ways that are aligned with the approach we studied in the project. It’s bold, courageous, and complicated work, and it could be a quantum leap in terms of equity.

Stirring the pot…what was your favorite city and why?

TP: Picking favorites seems dangerous. I’ll just say it was refreshing — and frankly surprising to me — that people actually wanted to talk to us. Leaders made time to share their stories and experiences. Almost no one was too busy to make time. And I don’t think this is because people are ego driven. Instead, I think it’s because they’d do anything within their power to help students in other cities. They are as tired as we are of seeing middling success.

JW: I’m a sucker for Denver. Great people, high premium on equity, willingness to innovate, and collaborative culture. They’re so sophisticated compared to other places, but they never settle or make excuses for poor achievement. It’s also the only place we profiled that did all of their work through an elected school board, which is why it’s become a model for so many other traditional school districts. I think their achilles heel is that their school system is very complicated despite a pretty clear unifying theory of action based on family choice, school empowerment, and accountability. (The great beer, whiskey, and trout fishing doesn’t hurt. I’m also roughly two trips away from buying cowboy boots.)

You mention that you hope to reach leaders in other cities. What is your message to them?

JW: The lessons from these eight cities and the last two decades are a treasure trove for current superintendents and board members who must make high-stakes decisions on a daily basis that affect students. The stories are full of mistakes to avoid and opportunities to seize. Anyone interested in creating a dynamic system of schools today is essentially starting on third base.

Over the next few months, I’ll be connecting current leaders with more experienced peers through face-to-face conveninings to facilitate further knowledge sharing.

LG: As I wrote these stories, I tried to stay focused on places where our audience might see themselves in the story and begin to write their own. The cities are so different that ideally every system leader can find a connection point or a touchstone that resonates with the journey they are on or plan to take. Through the interviews and perspectives of the individuals who are featured in each story, we want others to find a voice that speaks to their own experience, that draws them in and encourages them to keep going.