Tag Archives: school districts

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

As More Districts Create “Autonomous Schools,” They Need a Balanced Approach to District-Wide Services

We have written multiple posts in recent months about the spread of “autonomous district schools,” which occupy the middle ground between traditional district schools and charter schools. These models allow district schools to use some of the same freedoms as charter schools, while also remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services, like access to district facilities, transportation services, and enrollment systems. 

But, as we explain in our new report, “Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools,” districts vary widely — and confusingly — in their approaches. Some districts mandate which services their autonomous schools must use, while others create a structure for these schools to opt into or purchase certain district services. This can lead to a complicated balancing act between easily accessing these services and preserving schools’ autonomy to make decisions about how to best serve their students. 

three women school leaders sit around a tale with colorful writing and markers

Autonomous school leaders in San Antonio, TX: Regina Arzamendi (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Delia McLarren (Head of Schools, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Andrea Pitts (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy Primary)

Below are three lessons from our research that policymakers should consider when crafting autonomous school policies to improve the ways that districts relate to and support these schools:

Accessing district facilities can be a powerful incentive for autonomous district schools.

Facilities are a substantial cost for charter schools, which often lack access to taxpayer-funded facilities and, on average, spend about 10% of their per-pupil funding on facility space. Autonomous district schools, meanwhile, are typically housed within district-owned facilities. This arrangement eliminates one of the most important barriers facing school leaders who want to establish and operate a school with more decision-making power. However, accessing district facilities can also limit school leaders’ ability to make decisions about where their schools are located and whether a particular building provides an ideal setting for educating students. Districts interested in autonomous school policies, especially those involving external partners, need to consider how autonomous schools will be matched with facilities and what impact their location might have on other elements of school operations like transportation and enrollment.

Continue reading

Three “Must-Have” Areas of Freedom that Autonomous Schools Need to Succeed

My colleagues and I have been working with districts in several states to design and launch autonomous district schools, and over the past several months, we’ve rolled out a series of blog posts and other resources to explain how these kinds of schools can work best, including the new video below:

An obvious question in this work is: Which types of autonomies are crucial to the success of autonomous district school efforts?

Having worked with hundreds of high-performing schools around the country over the past fifteen years, I believe that strong alignment within and across three key areas is necessary to deliver excellent outcomes for students:

1. People

In a traditional district school, the principal likely has a number of people on her team who she did not hire. Maybe a few of them are not bought into the principal’s vision and would rather be on another campus. 

Principals in autonomous schools must have control over who is on their team, how roles are structured, and how teachers use their time, as my colleague Tresha Ward has written extensively about. Think about high-performing charter schools or networks: inevitably they have a leadership team and staff that believe deeply in the mission and unique instructional approach. 

Similarly, principals in district autonomous schools need to be able to select and support a team that is aligned around a common vision and strategy for educating children, wants to be part of the school, and is committed to professional learning and growth. Continue reading

Should an Ivy League Business School Train Education Leaders? Why Not?

Leading a large school district is a complex endeavor. Your days are spent managing thousands of employees charged with educating tens or hundreds of thousands of students, overseeing budgets that can easily reach nine figures, and navigating a complex legal and political environment. It’s not unreasonable to think that given the skill set needed to tackle those challenges, a business school training could be a great complement to traditional education leadership pipelines — which usually involve experience as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator, accompanied by training at schools of education, before taking on the superintendent role.

In fact, Bellwether’s Eight Cities project includes several examples where leaders with business backgrounds have overseen reforms that led to better outcomes for kids, including Joel Klein in New York City, Michael Bennet in Denver, and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. (Our site also includes examples of districts led by superintendents with more traditional backgrounds as teachers and school administrators, like Henderson Lewis in New Orleans.)

But efforts to infuse business skills into the superintendent role are still met with fierce criticism. Take for example the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,* which recently gave Yale’s School of Management $100 million to house the Foundation’s efforts to develop a pipeline of public school leaders. Diane Ravitch and like-minded folks on Twitter are describing this as another step towards the “privatization” of public education. 

Edward P. Evans Hall, Yale School of Management, New Haven, CT. Via Wikimedia user Nick Allen.

Broad’s expansion and move to Yale is but the latest in an ongoing debate about the ideal skill sets for transformative district leaders. Should they be well-versed in pedagogical theory, curriculum design, and classroom management practices, or should their expertise be grounded in the leadership of large organizations and management of multi-million dollar budgets? 

A better question would be: why should a large district have to choose? The Broad-Yale partnership could help strengthen public school leadership by adding new and complementary skill sets so that superintendents can benefit from the best of both worlds.  Continue reading

Media: “Boston schools achievement gap remains wide along racial lines — a troubling sign” in Boston Herald

In February, Bellwether published “An Uneven Path: Student Achievement in Boston Public Schools 2007-2017.” Boston was in the midst of a leadership transition, and we advised the next superintendent to make tough choices in support of equity. Last week, the Boston School Committee chose Dr. Brenda Cassellius, former state superintendent in Minnesota, as the district’s next leader.

Chad Aldeman and I recently spoke to the Boston Herald about the findings in our report, and the challenges Dr. Cassellius will face in her new role:

“Black and Hispanic students have not been making enough progress,” said Chad Aldeman, senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that recently student achievement in Boston Public Schools, “It’s a troubling sign.”

BPS risks losing its status as a national leader in urban K-12 education if it doesn’t launch innovative strategies to address flattening testing scores, the experts added. “If they want Boston to continue to be a stronger-than-average district, they have to focus on black, Hispanic, and low-income students,” said Bonnie O’Keefe, an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.

Bellwether board member Paul Reville also weighed in on Boston’s achievement gaps:

“It’s clearly a major challenge for Boston moving forward,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education. “They still have a long way to go.”

For more detail on Boston Public Schools’ progress and performance in the past ten years, take a look at “An Uneven Path.” Or read the full Boston Herald piece here.