Cleveland: Work to do, but signs of hope

No one said it would be easy. Two years ago, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, along with the city’s business, philanthropic, and education leaders, came to Columbus and asked Governor Kasich and the General Assembly to help them with legislation to reform the city’s long-struggling school system. The result, the “Cleveland Plan,” has drawn attention from around the state and across the nation.

The effort held promise that it would allow Cleveland to emerge from the bottom of the national heap in student achievement. The summer legislative victory in Columbus was followed by a successful levy campaign in Fall 2012, and the school district was off to the races busily trying to implement the components of the plan.

Reform plans, if they’re actually going to work, change the way a school district does business—and as anyone who follows education reform knows, that’s hard to do. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon’s implementation of the plan has come under fire. Let’s take a look at some of the most recent challenges.

Impatience

Rising expectations are essential for a struggling school district trying to improve its academic performance, but when the improvement plan requires additional local support from the community through a property-tax levy, those expectations extend beyond the schools and to every corner of the community. As reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, test scores in Cleveland’s investment schools (the lowest-performing schools “targeted for extra attention for improvement”) have been mixed and have not shown any clear improvement. Even though this is the first major checkpoint after the levy passage, the apparent lack of progress will leave some scratching their hands and wondering if this is another failed attempt at reform.

It’s important that we reserve judgment, however, and give the schools a little time to improve. This year’s and next year’s state-assessment results help us analyze the effectiveness of the plan. That analysis should focus both on the school’s performance index (the measure of how well students are doing on the state assessment) and their value-added score (the measure of whether students are meeting or exceeding their individual expectations, based upon past performance). If both of these measures show progress, the overall school ratings will increase—even if it’s a slow ascent. There’s no doubt the challenge is great, as Cleveland has routinely been one of the lowest-scoring cities in the nation on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The good news, though, is that progress matters like never before. The decision by Mayor Jackson and Gordon to limit the levy to a specific period of time, even placing a countdown clock on the CMSD website, and to report back to the community on results means that never again will student achievement in the city be ignored.

Student-based budgeting

On top of the lack of clear academic progress, some of the systemic changes are proving to be even more of a challenge. Cleveland’s reform plan shifted its organizational structure from what could best be called a traditional to a portfolio model. Portfolio models, advocated for by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (and others), are built on seven key components. The component garnering the most attention (mostly negative) in Cleveland is pupil-based funding for schools. (Additional details on pupil-based funding can be found here.)

While pupil- or student-based funding systems are designed to allocate resources based upon the needs of the students the school is serving, it can result in less funding for school buildings with declining enrollments. This provides transparency as to exactly how much money each building is getting, but teachers and parents with students in buildings receiving less than the year before will take little solace in this openness. Despite the ongoing controversy and increasing public concern, Eric Gordon deserves a tip of the cap for tackling the issue head on. Gordon recently sent a letter to education stakeholders in Cleveland explaining student-based budgeting and why it’s important.

In the letter, Gordon explained that student-based budgeting puts more control of school budgets into the hands of principals. Not only does it give them the responsibility for managing the budget, but it also empowers them to identify those things in the budget that would most help the students in the school make academic progress and provide support to the staff of the school so they can help the students to achieve. Patrick O’Donnell recently wrote about what this could mean for Cleveland principals. This type of principal/building autonomy is often absent in a district-controlled system, where everyone has a piece of the pie and where there responsibility doesn’t rest on any one individual’s shoulders. When things don’t work well and a school struggles, superintendents can blame a principal, principals can blame teachers, and teachers can blame the bloated central administrative office.

Despite some growing pains, Cleveland’s new portfolio system offers hope that school leaders will have the autonomy necessary to drive student success with clear accountability if the school struggles.

Declining enrollment

The need for additional budget cuts isn’t related to student-based budgeting but is instead a result of an expected decline in enrollment. The district’s budget next year calls for 1,500 fewer students and a loss of $14 million, and the trend is expected to continue.

In the same letter in which Gordon explained the importance of student-based budgeting, he also talked about the importance of working “together in the coming months to retain our students and attract others back.” A new website created by the Cleveland Transformation Alliance will make it easier for parents to acquire high-quality information about their educational choices. If successful in its recruitment efforts, Gordon promises that the additional funds generated by the increased enrollment will go directly toward school budgets. This represents a fundamentally different mindset. Gordon acknowledges the district is losing students, but instead of making excuses, he implies that the district will need to compete to get the students to return to the school.

This is the exact sort of competitive response that has occurred elsewhere and holds the most promise for the long-term value of school-choice programs. It’s not always easy for a district superintendent to publicly acknowledge the need to compete for students, but the fact that Gordon has suggests that CMSD has reached a turning point in its way of doing business. If he is successful and creates schools that are academically strong, attractive to parents, and present a safe environment, then that will help to right the ship. And Cleveland families will be the direct beneficiaries.

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