Tag Archives: eightcities

What’s Next in School District Reform? Five Leaders Share Their Visions

Across the span of three decades, several large, urban districts, including those profiled on our site EightCities.org, pursued reform strategies centered on autonomy, accountability, and family choice. In recent years, some of these districts rolled back their signature reforms or shifted their focus due to leadership change or backlash. Other districts are building off of past models to develop new district improvement strategies. And now, all of these districts are grappling with the challenge of serving students and families during a global pandemic.

The school systems profiled at EightCities.org all have different contexts, successes, and challenges, which we captured in our original 2018 site — now updated for 2020. To mark the site’s relaunch, we reached out to five prominent education leaders and asked each of them:

  • What is the outlook for innovative, ambitious district-wide reform strategies in 2020 and beyond? 
  • What are the biggest lessons state and local leaders should learn from the districts now facing headwinds in pursuit of these strategies?
  • What should education leaders do to advance reforms in partnership with families and community stakeholders?

Their responses range from calls for activism, to community and employer engagement, to renewed focus on curriculum and instruction. While the advice is varied, it’s clear that no education reform strategy is ever finished — it must adapt to build on successes and address new challenges.

Howard Fuller

Former Professor, Marquette University; Former Superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools

The search for the “new best practice” or the critical “proof point” continues in the struggle for education reform in the United States. New theories and reworked old theories about what must be done abound. In fact, many “reformers” no longer want to use the term “education reform” to characterize their efforts. Some of us continue to make the mistake of committing to new institutional practices as opposed to being committed to the needs and interests of our children. This commitment to method as opposed to purpose has put many “reformers” on the road to becoming the new status quo.

One thing that is sorely needed to have any hope of breaking this pattern is to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of the people being affected into the process prior to the real decisions being made. We must take seriously the notion of giving “power to the people.” Too many of us “reformers” still think the way to bring about lasting change is to get a lot of so-called smart people in a room to make all the key decisions and then inform the parents and students about those decisions as a way to keep them “engaged.” Continue reading

Will Newark Schools Continue to Beat the Odds Under Local Control?

As a suburban Jersey girl growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I knew two things about Newark. It was a city with a fine medical university where I had extensive dental work done, and it had a reputation for terrible schools run, at times, by corrupt leadership. Little did I know then that the city where I literally got my smile would one day have education results worth smiling about.

When Bellwether profiled Newark in 2018 for our Eight Cities project, it was because of the city’s approach to school reform and the remarkable gains in student achievement that came as a result. That story ended with a homegrown Superintendent — Roger León — taking the reins of the district as the state promised their return to local control. As of last week, the process of fully returning Newark schools to control of a locally-elected school board is complete. Now that Newarkers have full control over their schools, they have a new challenge: sustaining and building on the success of recent reforms.

Late last week, MarGrady Research confirmed Newark students continue to outperform peers attending similar schools within the state. Researchers define “beat-the-odds” schools as those that produce better state testing results than other schools in New Jersey with similar racial and socioeconomic characteristics. Compared to demographically similar students in urban schools in New Jersey, Newark students beat-the-odds, or exceed expectation, on their exam achievement outcomes.

Echoing similar results three years ago, Newark continues to lead other cities in the percentage of students enrolled in “beat-the-odds” schools. And it’s not even close: Thirty-five percent of Newark students attend beat-the-odds schools; Boston students are second at 20%. Furthermore, nearly 40% of Newark’s African-American students attend beat-the-odds schools – more than double the rate of Boston, where only 19% of African-American students have that opportunity.

One factor which cannot be understated in driving this success is Newark’s implementation of a universal enrollment system. This system allows parents to choose from a diverse set of high-quality public schools, both traditional and charter. Both sectors provide schools where Newark students can succeed: the MarGrady study found 16% of students in traditional district schools were enrolled in beat-the-odds schools. This is about twice the average rate of all 50 cities studied.

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Student-Based Budgeting in Service of Equity: A Q&A With Jess Gartner of Allovue

This interview was conducted just before the coronavirus pandemic upended schooling across the country. We decided not to publish this while educators, students, and families navigated the first phase of this crisis, but now, as district and school leaders develop plans for the 2020-21 school year, we believe this conversation’s focus on budgets and equity can inform their decision-making.

This post is also part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

School funding. Are we spending the right amount? Are we spending it fairly? Are we spending it wisely? These questions get the most attention when state legislatures debate policies that involve millions or even billions of dollars, or when those policies are challenged in court. Those conversations are critical — state funding policies are foundational to how schools are resourced — but they aren’t the whole story.

Less often discussed is how funding is allocated from districts to schools, which can have a major impact on equity. Most districts build school budgets based on inputs required to run each school, largely reflecting compensation costs for the teachers, administrators, and support staff employed in a school, plus budget for materials and supplies. This method may sound logical on its face, but it can limit strategic spending decisions and result in inequitable allocation of resources.

An alternative approach that some districts are beginning to explore is student-based budgeting, which allocates funds based on the students served in each school, weighted for factors associated with their individual education needs (such as income status, disability status, or status as a dual- or English-language learner).

Student-based budgeting can be a driver of equity and support district innovations like those highlighted in our Eight Cities project. When equipped with a budget that reflects the needs of their students, school leaders can then leverage increased school-level autonomy over key decisions, including staffing and budgeting, and customize school programs and operations to the needs of their students.

Allovue, a Baltimore-based education financial technology (EdFinTech) company, works with school districts to build and support technology-based solutions to plan, manage, and evaluate spending. We talked with CEO Jess Gartner to get more insight into student-based budgeting, particularly with an equity lens, and the opportunities and challenges it presents to districts.

"I am a huge proponent of principal autonomy – it's actually what got me into this work. I think that students and communities are best served when you put decisions and dollars in the hands of leaders that are closest to them"

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

At the heart of your company’s mission statement is a focus on equitable budgeting. What does that mean in practice?

Equity is not a “one size fits all” thing. There’s not a single “answer” for an equitable funding formula. You have to take into account the needs and context of the local community and align that to the needs of students and the resources they need to be successful in that district. A lot of the work we do starts with a “steady-state analysis” and helping districts understand where they are today. We are then able to dig in at a deeper level and ask: “What are some things jumping out at you as potentially problematic or areas that you want to improve?” We often see either an inverse correlation between need and dollars that are allocated or dollars that are spent, or we see a completely equal allocation of resources. In an ideal scenario, the resources are correlated positively with the needs of students.

Our recommended approach is to use the first six to twelve months with a targeted group of internal stakeholders to see where they are today. We can’t inform your strategy one way or another until we all have some time to look at where you are today.

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“Not All Children Learn and Develop in the Same Way”: Q&A with Asia J. Norton of Newark

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

When education policymakers, legislators, and lawmakers operate in isolation, they can seem distant or removed from the communities they serve. So what happens when a policymaker is also a teacher and a parent?

In advance of the summer 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with Asia J. Norton, a third-generation Newark teacher and parent who serves on the Newark Board of Education.

As a young student, Asia’s struggles with literacy led her mother to switch Asia into a different school. In this conversation, she talks about ensuring that every Newark parent has the opportunity to choose a school that is the right fit for their child.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become so deeply involved in education at multiple levels?

I was born into education. Both my grandmother and mother were teachers in Newark. But as a child, I wasn’t served well by my local public school. By the time I reached fifth grade, I barely knew how to read. My mother, being a parent and an educator, recognized that I needed something different. She pulled me out of my public school, used the social security money she received from my father’s death, and enrolled me in a private school.  That experience prompted me to observe the differences between my school and the school where my mother taught — it felt like two different education systems.

I knew policy was driving a lot of the inequities I saw, so after college I [got] involved in education policy. But I knew that if I truly wanted to make an impact on education policy, I needed to be in the classroom and have the practitioner perspective.

Being a teacher is definitely different than talking about teaching. Although my grandmother and mother were teachers, I wasn’t a teacher until I was in front of kindergarten students teaching them how to read. And because of my struggles as a student, I developed a passion for literacy education. As a teacher I continued to see the differences in school quality in my community. I saw how getting the right seat can make an enormous difference. Continue reading

Adapting Schools to a New Normal With Decentralized Power

The scale, speed, and severity of the coronavirus crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen in our nation’s history. In a matter of a few weeks, schools across the country shut down and most won’t reopen their physical campuses this academic year. No school system was completely prepared for what seemed like a near-impossible challenge: shifting to a fully remote model of education while simultaneously coordinating key student support services and adapting to evolving public health guidelines amidst a global pandemic. 

We won’t know the full impact of the choices school leaders are making for quite some time, but some school systems may be better positioned than others to navigate the challenges posed by the current pandemic. School systems that already embrace more decentralized decision-making, either by supporting more autonomous district schools or charter schools, seem to be better adapting to the complex challenge of educating kids in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

empty office boardroom with laptop on meeting table

Image by Jo_Johnston from Pixabay

We’re starting to see educators take action – often without clear guidance from central offices – to use whatever tools they can to reach their students. We know that there are vast inequities in students’ access to education during this crisis, so some teachers have been handing out Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots. In other communities, teachers are using print packets, telephones, and television broadcasts to reach students without access to technology. There are countless stories of individual teachers moving faster than their districts’ central offices, meeting with their classes on Zoom, offering supplemental instruction from a student’s porch, or leaving math problems in chalk on students’ driveways

While it would be impossible and unreasonable to expect every teacher to figure out how to meet the needs of every student during this crisis, we’re also seeing how top-down decision-making by districts can go terribly wrong for teachers and students. One need look no further than affluent Fairfax County (VA), which had a disastrous roll-out of their virtual learning platform. Marred by poor planning, testing, and vendor management, it’s clear that whatever process Fairfax used to develop their plan, it wasn’t driven and tested by teachers.  Continue reading