Districts and schools across the country are working to promote deeper learning among students, which in many places requires a fundamental rethinking of school design. Making this shift can seem overwhelming, but several resources, including an example set by San Jose Unified School District, offer a solid place to start.
What is “deeper learning”?
Deeper learning, a term coined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, means teaching students to use their knowledge and skills in a way that prepares them for real life by mastering core academic content. Students learn to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves. The six deeper learning competencies are: Master Core Academic Content; Think Critically and Solve Complex Problems; Work Collaboratively; Communicate Effectively; Learn How to Learn; and Develop an Academic Mindset.
Taken together, these competencies result in students’ ability to use and apply what they have learned. They also align with the skills and competencies around which other efforts—21st century skills, the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, College and Career Readiness and others—are based.
How are schools designing programs to promote deeper learning?
Last year, the Hewlett Foundation and the Silicon Valley Foundation supported Cross & Joftus, in partnership with the Enterprise Development Group and The Institute for the Future, to help school leaders and teachers in San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) re-envision and redesign their schools to prepare students for the 21st century. Schools designed programs that would change the very core of teaching. Their approaches use technology to personalize learning; activate learning through a model of inquiry or student-centered teaching strategies; and institute group work in which students help each other learn.
When I reviewed the various plans, I was struck by how consistent the proposed strategies and practices were with the strategies most common across the SJUSD school redesign proposals I examined and profiled in my book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century (2014). These practices include empowering students as learners; contextualizing knowledge so it is coherent; connecting learning to real-world experiences; extending learning beyond the school; inspiring students by customizing learning experiences; and purposefully incorporating technology to enhance, rather than automate, learning.
How can every school develop and implement a redesign plan that enables teachers to focus on and develop the six deeper learning competencies?
From a national perspective, one of the greatest challenges is bringing deeper learning policies and practices to underserved communities. While all students can benefit from deeper learning opportunities, students in underserved communities are less likely to have these opportunities. One program that is working to expand access to deeper learning is the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows, a cohort-based leadership program working to provide equitable access to deeper learning.
At the school level, one resource designed to help school leaders and teachers create an environment in which teachers can design learning experiences around deeper learning competencies is The Planning Guide. The Guide is grounded in the theory that the first step toward this goal is to develop a school-wide culture that promotes students’ learning and collective responsibility for the school.
Collective responsibility doesn’t happen by accident; a culture of collective responsibility must be purposefully established for students and teachers alike. For students, this can mean developing community through advisories, peer-to-peer mentorships, group work, and community-wide events. For teachers, collective responsibility is established through opportunities to function as professionals with a high level of autonomy, to share in the leadership of the school, to direct and design their own professional development, and to work together collaboratively.
Districts’ role in Redesigning Schools for the 21st Century
While creating a culture that lays the foundation for school redesign seems to fall on school leaders and teachers, districts also have a role to play. SJUSD has modeled this well. The district set a vision for 21st century schools grounded in the six deeper learning competencies and incentivized schools to reorient towards those competencies. Through philanthropic and district funds, the district ran a funding competition for schools to establish a proof of concept to transform teaching in 2015 and created a clear path for broader implementation in the 2016-17 school year. The district provided each funded team with an experienced advisor to push the school’s thinking, provided access to networks and expertise, and provided project management and change management coaching.
SJUSD is a shining example of how a district can tap into the passion of school leaders and teachers and provide support without the use of top-down mandates. The district showed that school transformation is truly an iterative process that can be catalyzed and accelerated when there is district-wide support for a culture of innovation and when school leaders are committed to establishing a strong school culture focused on learning and collective responsibility.
“Trying to walk down an escalator going up.” This is how an 18-year old Washington, DC student described his high school career that culminated this past spring—despite the odds—with him receiving his diploma. His was one of 29 high school seniors who spoke to C&J’s Marian Robinson (also an assistant professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development).
These 29 graduating seniors had one thing in common—they entered ninth grade looking statistically identical to students who would ultimately drop out but ended up “recovering” and graduating from high school on time. With support from Raise DC, C&J conducted focus groups with these students to learn about their stories. The results are contained in the new report From Off Track to Diploma: Understanding the Educational Path of Washington, DC, Recovery Students (the report can be downloaded for free from Raise DC’s website here).
The stories told by these remarkable young people were funny, heartbreaking, heartfelt, and inspiring. Students told about patterns of low academic engagement—reflected in poor grades, disengagement during class, and excessive absences—tracing back to their middle school years. Many were promoted despite failing grades. Negative social activities and difficult family dynamics dominated student attention both in and out of school.
For many, the situation worsened as they entered high school: They reported that the academic expectations and increased responsibilities of high school were disorienting and acknowledged that they entered high school without understanding the gatekeeping roles of course credits, GPA, and attendance. The subject orientation, high standards, and fast pace of high schools added to their difficulties. Finally, social distractions expanded and intensified in high school, now resulting in real consequences that stood in the way of graduation.
The report presents six key reasons recovery students got back on track to graduation. Students pinpointed tipping-point events that sparked their commitment to change, including undergoing self-reflection triggered by seeing failing grades, experiencing concrete consequences of negative behavior, and becoming increasingly sensitive to family members’ concerns for their futures.
Thanks to DC’s comprehensive school choice program (which also results in student mobility and school tumult as they accommodate students in the middle of the year), students—many of whom changed schools more than once during their four years—found their “right” schools that met their needs or offered “fresh starts.” At their graduating schools, students felt anchored by the development of positive adult relationships and school cultures that offered the structures to help students imagine, plan for, and work toward a future. They thrived in schools that embraced a practice of multiple chances for success through encouragement to revise class work, to frequently monitor their grades, and to utilize credit recovery resources.
Once on the path to graduation, students felt—and were—transformed. As one student told C&J’s Dr. Robinson:
I remember the moment when I knew like I was actually going to make it. It was like when I first came here, and I got my first honor roll for my whole high school career. I was just like shocked. I was so surprised by myself that I didn’t even … I was so used to just barely making it. So when I made that I was just like, “Well, I could do anything now.” Now I just kept on getting honor roll. So, yeah … That’s when I knew I was going to make it.
How do we help more students at risk of dropping out to recover? We do know a lot about works (see here, for example, for improved transitions to ninth grade). But we wanted to maintain student voices, and they made it clear that there is no secret sauce. What is clear, however, is that some students just need time to mature with the supports of caring (and very patient) adults in the school. Ideally, these adults should have a lot of information and data about students and ways to easily access services such as health, legal, counseling, and economic services. It helps if schools empower disengaged students to track their own academic progress, revise assignments, and access needed credits. It’s also clear that middle schools are not serving these students well and need to change by becoming more engaging, rigorous, supportive, and aligned with the high school (or schools) that most of their students will attend.
None of these findings are unique. What is unique is the way in which Dr. Robinson gives voice to those who are too frequently ignored in Washington, DC’s policy circles—the students themselves.
This post appeared in the Huffington Post on July 28, 2015 as the second of two posts; for more on Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti) and Jean-Claude’s formative educational experiences, read the first post: Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti) Partners with Teach for All to Launch Teacher Leader Program in Haiti.
In Haiti, only 30 percent of children from low-income households will successfully complete primary school. Ten percent will complete high school and one percent will reach university. And of those who complete their university studies, approximately 80 percent will look for opportunities outside of the country. With these hard statistics in our minds, we pulled into the parking lot of the Sans-Souci Palace in Milot, Haiti. I spent the first 11 years of my life only a few miles away, but I had only been here two or three times. In fact, it had been 19 years since I last visited Haiti. This homecoming was long overdue.
I was in Haiti with the board of Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti in Haitian Creole), an organization that recruits and trains teacher leaders, equipping them to transform the lives of their students — for a five-day trip to meet with the first cohort of 30 students and visit our network of partner schools.
Among the group was an information and communication technology specialist; a leader at a charter school in Philadelphia; the CEO and Founder of an organization focused on creating a health movement for African American women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles; an independent consultant who specializes in international nonprofit finances; and a district leader from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system in North Carolina. Included in the group, of course, was Nedgine Paul, the co-founder and CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti. Some of us have deep connections to Haiti, but we were all united in our belief that through quality education we can lift a people and a country.
In Haiti, we have a saying, men anpil, chay pa lou, or many hands lighten the load. As I contemplated the challenges ahead as we set out to build a movement with APA, I thought of how the eight of us had come together for this effort and of the bonds that quickly connected us. None of us are under any illusion about the challenges that we face as the APA movement gains momentum. Through APA, we will invest in local teacher leaders as the way to transform Haiti and create a new narrative for what is possible in this proud nation. We have intentionally placed our cohort members in rural, underserved communities instead of the capital of Port-au-Prince. And we want to join forces with others who believe in education as a human right, and that all children deserve access to quality education.
Today in Haiti, approximately 80 percent of primary school teachers are not formally trained. APA’s vision for success includes recruiting a mixed cohort of current and new talent — we value current teachers as well as recent university graduates beginning their careers. We are the first in the Teach For All global network to take this approach. Word is spreading of APA’s presence and more schools across the country are asking for help. Even school principals are inquiring about participating.
Despite myriad challenges clear to us on this trip, I found myself getting more hopeful for the future as we visited APA partner schools and spoke with school principals and with members of APA’s first cohort of teacher leaders. To say that they are inspiring would frankly be an understatement. They are brilliant, poised, and very self-aware. One said, “I am not arrogant. I know my craft and I know where I need support.”
These leaders also understood their community and local and national politics. They were already thinking about how to create a movement uniting allies who believe change within the education system is possible, especially through a contextualized approach that values Haiti’s rich culture, language, and history.
APA has been deliberate in selecting a diverse corps that will touch multiple areas of the country. As the cohorts grow, I am confident that we will see a flywheel effect. But in the tradition of true collaboration, APA is not taking this road alone. We are building a sustainable model by working in close partnership with local organizations, public and private institutions, local universities, and community groups. We are also grateful for the support of the US Embassy in Haiti and Fondation Digicel.
As an Aspen Institute Pahara Fellow, I think of lessons we can draw from APA’s approach to begin to break down the polarizing rhetoric that plagues our US education system. Our cohort of Fellows come from all walks of life, and the lessons that we draw from the fellowship reinforce the need to actively engage diverse ideas and voices. The world does not need another education advocate arguing one side or the other. Our children, especially those from poorer ZIP codes or countries, need doers who are focused on collaborating to finding solutions to break down the barriers to accessing a quality education. Their future — our future — depends on it.
This article was distributed to the Leaders Leading Leaders Network in July 2015.
Is the current focus of many districts’ reform efforts on principals as instructional leaders detrimental to the improvement of schools? Instructional leadership is a critical component of any effective school leader, but the all-encompassing focus on the principal as the all-knowing, all-doing instructional leader will not lead schools and districts to the Promised Land. Rather, a balance is needed that recognizes principals as leaders of teams of teachers and coaches that are collectively responsible for student success and that acknowledges the many other tasks that a principal must perform for a school to be successful. This balance is a main topic of the “Leaders Leading Leaders” (or 3L) Network comprising about 45 principal supervisors from 15 districts in the Midwest. The Network—funded by the Sherwood Foundation, managed by Cross & Joftus, and developed along with leaders from Omaha Public Schools—held its very first meeting in Omaha on July 15-16.
The singular focus on the principal as instructional expert is expressed in many districts through new teacher evaluation systems. These time-intensive systems expect the principal to possess technical instructional expertise and apply it to individual teacher/principal interactions through the evaluation process. Initially, proponents of new evaluation systems promised that this technical focus on instruction would lead to improved practice and increased student learning. This promise was built on the assumption that the principal is “the” instructional expert in the school and that instructional changes emanate from the principal’s expertise, one teacher at time. This assumption ignores the instructional capacity of the teaching staff, which, as instructional practitioners, have a wealth of instructional knowledge, expertise, and ideas. A number of districts have recognized this, including Cross & Joftus clients Hillsborough County and Denver, and have begun working intentionally to build distributed instructional leadership models that leverage the instructional capacity of teachers.
Michael Fullan, in his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, makes the case to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader … directing their energies to developing the group … while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t.”
Fullan’s ideas remind me of my first year as principal. I quickly realized that my staff had considerably more instructional knowledge than I, and the key to my success as a building leader was going to be in figuring out how to capitalize on that knowledge and expertise. Our school saw great gains in teacher practice and student achievement, certainly not due to me being the instructional expert. Instead, I positioned myself as a learner along with the staff and poured my energy into creating teacher teams responsible for student learning. I often wonder if I were a newly minted principal today, would I focus my time and energy on building effective teacher learning teams or would I succumb to the expectations of being “the” instructional expert.
It’s not that instructional leadership is unimportant, but defining instructional leadership beyond the technical expertise residing in, and wielded by, the principal is critical to school improvement. We need to broaden the definition to embrace the collective instructional expertise of the teaching staff and then charge the principal, as the instructional leader, with setting up the structures and expectations to unleash this expertise, leading to improved practice and improved student learning.
In January, the Southern Education Foundation reported that a majority of the nation’s public school students come from low-income families – 51% is the national average with many states experiencing higher rates. The implications of educating a majority-poverty population are complex and are increasingly felt by teachers, principals, and district and community leaders across the country. We know that low-income children have less access to early childhood and enrichment opportunities than their middle- and upper-class peers. And for a growing pool of too many, food security, emotional and physical health, housing, and other essentials are lacking.
Districts with student poverty rates soaring above the national average are turning to a community school model to try and address these challenges. Last summer, New York City superintendent Bill de Blasio announced a grant program to launch community schools in the city’s high-need areas, falling in line behind other urban districts including Oakland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.
Community schools are not new – the Coalition for Community Schools has been promoting and studying them for decades. The goal of a community school is to leverage district and partner resources to integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement, resulting in thriving students, families, and communities.
This approach may seem tangential to many of today’s reform priorities – we know that great teaching and school leadership account for a sizable share of the student success puzzle. And much of our work is understandably focused there. But as schools serve more and more students from low-income families, non-academic factors can’t be ignored – and teachers, schools, and districts need help addressing them. Integrating student and family supports in schools is becoming less of a nice-to-do and more of a prerequisite to learning.
For the past five months, Cross & Joftus has worked with Tulsa Public Schools to examine their decades-old approach to community schools and suggest ways to strengthen it. We’ve found there, as we expect we might find in other places, that the community schools strategy has been implemented as a distinct initiative, parallel to but on the periphery of the district’s core instructional improvement work aimed at creating successful teachers, leaders, and students.
The district and its community and philanthropic partners want to change that, making sure that the services and supports students receive are tightly connected to individual student needs and the core work of schools and the district. What that looks like exactly is to be determined – with support from C&J, a group of community stakeholders are developing a strategic plan for accomplishing that goal. But for NYC and others interested in a full-service school model, Tulsa will be a place to watch.
Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice.
Earlier this month, the Wyoming legislature convened for its semi-annual session. Of the many important issues discussed, the most controversial may well have been whether to place the question of eliminating the elected chief state school officer on the 2016 general election ballot.
The discussion was informed by a study commissioned by the Wyoming legislature and conducted by Cross & Joftus. For this study, almost 1500 Wyomingites responded to an online survey and extensive interviews were conducted with 31 stakeholders groups. The study found that most Wyomingites are weary of the periods of stagnating tension between the elected schools chief, Governor, and State Board and want to see change. When the views of the elected Superintendent and appointed Board have aligned, the system has worked well. But when they have not, leadership has gotten bogged down and school districts have received conflicting messages about the state’s priorities.
Wyoming is a fascinating state. It boasts the smallest population in the nation but spends more (on a cost-adjusted basis) on education than any state, nearly twice the average of its immediate neighbor states. Despite this investment, Wyoming does not meet many of its student achievement goals. Low-income students perform quite well, but Wyoming has few concentrations of poverty and rural poverty can be far different than in urban areas. Non-poverty students do not do nearly as well, placing Wyoming in the mid-30s when compared to other states and about even with Slovenia if an international scale is used.
Across the study’s survey and interviews, a strong majority expressed dissatisfaction – even frustration – with the lack of a unified strategy for improving education at the state level. Time, energy, and attention seem to have been focused on the political leadership controversies in recent years, at the expense of a coherent vision and aligned services and supports to districts, schools, and children.
Our study concluded that Wyoming’s state-level education governance structure contains a structural flaw. The State Board is charged with establishing policies and standards, but when the elected State Superintendent determines that these are in conflict with his or her campaign commitments, there is no defined process for reaching a resolution. The result is often a stalemate in which the policies are either not implemented or done slowly or incompletely. Similarly, when the State Superintendent has made a campaign commitment to change certain policies or standards, that person lacks the authority to do so. The result can be four years of leadership stagnation – a serious problem when educational improvement is so vital to the future economic and social well-being of states.
Education is the largest single item in almost every state’s budget, yet elected chiefs are rarely at the table and can feel they have their own agendas to pursue. The state board and/or the governor can hold an appointed chief accountable on an on-going basis for effective collaboration, providing increased opportunity to ensure that districts are given clear guidance and support and that the state’s educational system continually improves. However, securing sufficient legislative and public support to change a state’s constitution is a difficult hurdle.
While we will not know for a few months what will emerge, it is significant that the public wants to see adjustments to the state governance structure. If the state does move away from an elected schools chief, they would be following in the footsteps of many other states. Today, 13 state chiefs are elected, down from 33 in the late 1940s and discussions around the issue of an elected versus an appointed chief are also likely to occur in Indiana and North Carolina. Will Wyoming be next to better align state education leadership? Stay tuned!
Watching the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers—now led by the great LeBron James—struggle early in the season got me thinking: What does it take for a group of great individual players, including one of the best players in history, to work together to become a championship team? And, what can schools learn from such basketball teams?
The best basketball teams (see the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as a great example) have hugely talented and hard working players, but they commit to implementing a system that maximizes the likelihood of team success, sometimes to the detriment of individual players’ statistics such as scoring. Similarly, in many cases, coaches with strong beliefs about how the game should be played adjust their approach to take most advantage of the skills of the players on their team and work endlessly to ensure that players understand and buy into the role that they are being asked to play.
Great schools and school districts are just like this. The San Antonio Spurs of school districts is Garden City Public Schools (GCPS), which serves about 7,500 students (three-quarters of whom are economically disadvantaged) way out in western Kansas.
Measuring Garden City’s success and growth is difficult. Due to difficulties with the statewide rollout of new assessments last year, neither Garden City nor any other district in the state has summative data from 2013-14, and the data from 2012-2013 was based on a state assessment that had not been aligned to the new standards. Moreover, the district switched formative assessment providers last year so trend data are not yet available.
That said, GCPS has been on an upward trajectory since 2008 when it joined the Kansas Learning Network (KLN). KLN, created and managed for five years by Cross & Joftus (C&J), was the Kansas State Department of Education’s intervention for the lowest performing schools and districts in the state. Participating districts received an intensive needs assessment, coaching, and other supports. We assigned Joan Evans—the LeBron James of educators—to serve as the coach for GCPS.
Since 2008, GCPS has been focused like a laser on proving Michael Fullan’s maxim: “Every successful school and system in the world proves the point that only collective engagement will get us the results we are seeking.” GCPS—which, like the Spurs, has enjoyed very stable leadership—has become obsessed with the need to include teachers in the district’s planning and decision-making processes in order to build capacity and buy-in to what they are trying to do while emphasizing the need to build systems that are consistent grade to grade and school to school. These systems include most notably the best “instructional rounds” I have ever seen. The rounds are low-stake classroom observations by administrators and teachers that create and enforce clear agreements about what effective teaching looks like. The data from these rounds are analyzed and discussed in principal meetings to understand school implementation of high-impact instructional strategies and identify types of coaching and supports needed to continue making progress.
GCPS leadership would tell you that they got off to a rocky start, much like this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Teachers and principals didn’t understand the purpose of the observations and didn’t trust how the data would be used. But the district stayed with it and the culture has been transformed. Teachers and school administrators now lead professional development and proudly discuss the changes that have been made at meetings and conferences. And student achievement—though difficult to track over time—seems to be climbing steadily according to Darren Dennis, a senior GCPS administrator and a key architect of the reforms.
Unfortunately, there are no trophies to be won in education. But if you want to see a district that has created a championship culture, go visit Garden City, Kansas (just give yourself a lot of time to get there).
Read more about the C&J approach to School, District, and State Improvement.
The question remains: can one person, the Superhero Superintendent, save a struggling, broken school district or is she a mere mortal, destined to be defeated by a lack of systemic coherence?
Back in 2008, I partnered with Susan Tave Zelman, former Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction and current Executive Director of the Ohio Department of Education, to write an article for the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice titled Systems, Not Superheroes about the need for districts and states to stop putting all of their eggs in the basket of superhero leaders and start investing in “complete and interlocking systems to support reform.” Six years later, it seems that little has changed as demonstrated most recently by the Los Angeles Unified MiSiS record-keeping system problems and the subsequent leadership upheaval.
Nabbing high-profile executives is not a comprehensive school reform strategy, especially given how long most of those individuals stay in the job. A recent survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools found that the average tenure of urban school superintendents dropped to 3.2 years in the 2013-2014 school year, a decline after 10 years of modest growth.
As Dr. Zelman and I wrote in 2008, even the most qualified individual would have a difficult time leading when faced with disconnected curricula and assessments; nonexistent resource tracking systems; disconnected teacher and principal recruitment, evaluation, and retention systems; and a demoralized, unsupported constituency of students and educators. As depicted in the following graphic, an integrated system must be developed in which human, fiscal, and community resources coupled with accountability support and extend the instructional system to improve student learning and achievement.
Figure 1: Complex, interrelated organization with subsystems (Ohio Department of Education)
When we create such a system,
- Teachers and school leaders have the knowledge, skills, and professional development they need to help all schools learn;
- Funding is aligned to a plan, based on data, focused on clear goals, and provides effective support for educators;
- Parents and families, business and industry, local community organizations, state and local health and human service agencies, and the media are actively engaged in the effort to improve school efficacy and student achievement;
- Performance targets regarding knowledge, skills, and abilities are set for students and educators that are fair, attainable, but also a stretch; and
- Instruction is based upon clear expectations of what we want our students to know and be able to do and is implemented by educators with the capacity to teach well thanks to aligned community, human, and fiscal resources.
A coherent, interdependent, sustainable system such as this allows the district leader to abandon the failure-bound role of Superhero and embrace the far more valuable role of Instructional Leader. The district leader will then have the freedom to do something truly heroic, that of helping educators teach students in the most effective way possible so that they can achieve their true potential. Because while strong and charismatic leaders are essential, systems and extraordinary leaders need to live in harmony.
Now that is the happy ending we all wish to see.
Thanks to Torrey Shawe for her contributions to this post.
While our national economy is showing many signs of recovery including higher job growth and lower unemployment, many state education budgets are still feeling the effects of the recent recession. A recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities provided the following sobering statistics.
- At least 35 states provided less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. (These figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)
- At least 15 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in this school year than they provided a year ago. This is despite the fact that most states are experiencing modest increases in tax revenues.
- Where funding has increased, it has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, New Mexico is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years.
And even with reduced state investments, districts are being asked to do more—add more pre-K rooms; increase the use of technology; provide more options for high school students; support more STEM activities; ready teachers and students for new state standards and assessments; and upgrade their physical plan to support learning in the information age.
There is, perhaps, a hint of a silver lining in this very gloomy economic scenario. That is, in the face of declining revenues, district leaders are becoming more thoughtful and strategic in how they are choosing to deploy their resources (people, time, and money). Through our work with districts across the country, we are seeing:
- A focus on trimming budgets where cuts can do the least harm rather than across the board cuts that were so common just a few years ago. For instance, some districts have been able to maintain investments in key reform strategies like a longer day or one-on-one technology while cutting other programs or activities.
- The use of data to understand what approaches are working and attempts to preserve investments in those areas. The idea of calculating and measuring “return on investments” in education has gotten a large boost during this era of do-more-with-less.
- More partnerships between districts and other city agencies and community organizations to bring additional resources into schools such as additional adult volunteers to support project-based learning or increase access to technology.
While some may argue that education budgets have become bloated over time, the reality is that districts can only do more with less for so long. Eventually, budget cuts will (and some argue already do) limit the ability of districts to provide students with the quality of education that we have come to expect and that is needed for continued national prosperity. If we believe that education is the driver of our economy and that investments to improve teaching and learning, in technology, and in the physical infrastructure of schools are necessary for the development of a competitive workforce, than the continued reduction in state education budgets should be a shared cause for concern.
What’s an appropriate pace for reforming schools and school systems? Put another way, is there a “speed limit” that attempted reforms cannot (or should not) surpass?
These questions were on my mind last week when I was visiting Omaha Public Schools (OPS). As I have written recently (see here), we have been helping OPS navigate the twists and turns of education reform for about a year. The district has planned and reorganized strategically, and due to a variety of factors—including a new board of education and administration, an incredibly supportive community, and an outstanding instructional framework—the district appears poised to really take off.
OPS began implementing its strategic plan this summer and, to no one’s surprise, has gotten off to a tremendous start. As I learned on my visit last week, the district is actively and aggressively implementing many key strategies in the strategic plan, including:
1. Cross-functional working groups are monitoring and managing implementation of strategies from the strategic plan. Groups meet monthly to monitor the status of implementation, problem solve, and discuss any issues that should be shared with the Executive Council. A dashboard displaying progress being made on each strategy was developed and shared with all working group participants. The working groups have developed a five-year timeline to coordinate timing of implementation for all strategies.
2. District administrators are using a performance-management process (District Stat) to track and improve implementation of four strategies from the strategic plan. These four strategies were chosen for the intensive Stat process due to their foundational importance and high-profile nature.
3. Principals and executive directors of school support have been trained on a School Stat process that will track and improve implementation of school-based strategies from the strategic plan.
4. The district has reorganized the central office with the intention of improving supports for schools. Most notably, four cabinet-level positions – executive directors of school support (principal supervisors) – were created and filled and training for these individuals has begun in earnest.
5. A bond proposal to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for OPS facilities will be placed before Omaha voters in November.
6. Teachers and principals have increased their focus on expanding and improving the quality of instructional time with students thanks, among other efforts, to a district-wide emphasis on increasing instructional time during the regular school day and principal “coaching” visits to classrooms.
7. In an effort to enhance equity, maximize the impact of district spending on student outcomes, and lessen principal workload, the district is in the process of shifting to “priority-based” budgeting, which will be in full effect for the 2015-16 school year.
8. The district is spearheading a number of important technology upgrades.
9. Central office is focusing on improving customer service for schools and the public by creating benchmarks and developing a number of satisfaction surveys.
10. The teacher and principal evaluation systems have been revised and improved. Starting this year, principals will be evaluated by a direct supervisor every year.
This is not an all-inclusive list, and even just a few of these initiatives would be considered a “heavy lift” for many school districts. But, as Mark Evans, the OPS superintendent, says, “They are all critical.”
But is it too much? Principals told me—as a consultant to the district—that they feel overwhelmed by the pace and scope of reform. Can reforms—even critical and strategic ones—succeed without the full support of principals? On the other hand, can important change take place in a school district without making at least some key stakeholders uncomfortable? I would argue that the answer to both of these questions is “no,” but finding the point at which stakeholders like principals feel uncomfortable but still engaged and supported is no easy task.
As a result of the feedback it has received, OPS is wisely (in my view) slowing down the implementation of some of its initiatives and re-doubling its efforts to engage principals and teachers. While the decision to slow down is disappointing to some in the district, it shows an instinctual understanding among OPS administrators and board members that education reform has a “speed limit” for meaningful and lasting change that will result in improved outcomes for students for years to come.
Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice area.