Governance

Last month, I asked why schools ignore so many good ideas. Have we not gotten the incentives right? Is it poor leadership? Do we have an ineffective system for disseminating promising practices? Or are superintendents, principals, and educators simply overwhelmed by the avalanche of advice that lands on their desks and in their inboxes? Might there be a way to help them sift the wheat from the chaff, then make good use of the former?

I believe there is. Let me introduce the open-source school district.

Meet the open-source school district
Imagine a virtual school district, charged with developing and constantly updating a strategy for addressing the needs of fictitious students.

Imagine the creation of a virtual school district. It wouldn’t have any actual students, teachers, buses, or facilities, but it would have a school board, a superintendent, and a central-office staff. (The superintendent and staff would be paid real salaries and be housed in a real office; the school board would be made up of various “education experts” or maybe “stakeholders” who, like real school board members, would volunteer their time.) It would be given a demographic profile—say, an inner-ring suburban district of 10,000 with a fair amount of racial and socioeconomic diversity. It would inherit the student achievement results, policies, and practices of a typical district. We’d situate it in an actual...

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Few school systems have embraced the opportunity presented by crisis quite like the one in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Just five years ago, when the economy collapsed, the Reynoldsburg district was cutting deep into its staff budget and establishing buffers such as a $500 pay-to-play activity fee for families. Exasperated parents fled to neighboring districts, and voters repeatedly rejected the district’s levy requests. Pupil enrollment fell by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012, and once-crowded schools found themselves with extra space.

Reynoldsburg’s leaders responded to hardship with innovation
Reynoldsburg's leaders responded to hardship with innovation

But while many other districts succumbed to hand wringing at similar moments of despair, Reynoldsburg’s leaders responded with innovation. They slashed central-office staff and sent more resources to individual schools, empowering principals with key decision-making authority. They developed “themes” at schools, with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and they established more charter schools and enhanced school choice throughout the district. Most unusually, they bartered with a community college, a hospital, a preschool, and a dance company to utilize its extra space in ways that benefitted its own students.

But perhaps most importantly, write Ellen Belcher and Terry Ryan in their informative profile of the district for the Fordham Institute, Limitless, Education, the Reynoldsburg Way, the 6,300-student district embraced a much-discussed but seldom-practiced...

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Few school systems have embraced a crisis of opportunity quite like the school system in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Just five years ago, when the economy collapsed on everyone, the Reynoldsburg district was cutting deep into its staff and establishing buffers such as a $500 pay-to-play activity fee on families. Exasperated parents fled to neighboring districts and voters repeatedly rejected the district’s many levy requests. Pupil enrollment eventually fell by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012, and once crowded schools found themselves with extra space.

But while other suburban school districts succumbed to hand-wringing at such moments of despair, Reynoldsburg responded with innovation. It slashed central office staff and sent more resources to individual schools, empowering principals with key decision-making authority. It developed “themes” at schools with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and it established more charter schools and enhanced school choice throughout the district. Most unusually, it bartered with a community college, a hospital, a preschool, and a dance company to utilize its extra space in ways that benefitted its own students.

But perhaps most important, write Ellen Belcher and Terry Ryan in their informative profile of the district for the Fordham Institute, Limitless, Education, the Reynoldsburg Way, is the approach the 6,300-student district has taken to school leadership and administration—that of portfolio management. Principals have the authority to design unique academic programs, and they get to make the calls and employ the people that are the right fit for their schools. The superintendent acts...

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Introduction

One of the most exciting developments in American education during the last decade has been the reconceptualization of school districts and how they should be organized and managed. Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, describes this as a movement of “relinquishers.”¹ Relinquishers, according to Kingsland, are superintendents who use their authority to transfer power away from the central office to individual schools – and, most important, to their principals and teachers.

Education researchers Paul Hill, Christine Campbell, and Betheny Gross at the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle have written for more than a decade about “portfolio school districts.” Like Kingsland’s relinquishers, portfolio school district leaders see their role not as running the schools, but rather as creating the conditions for a “tight-loose” system of school management – “tight” as to results, but “loose” with regard to operations. Superintendents are no longer owner-operators of schools, but rather “quality control agents” for portfolios of different types of schools in their districts.

Portfolio school district managers, according to Hill and his colleagues, think like savvy financial managers who build a diverse portfolio to ensure overall financial success even if parts of the portfolio underperform. A successful portfolio manager:

…avoids betting everything on one investment, knowing that some holdings will perform much better than expected and some much worse. This manager is agnostic as to which companies are represented but knows that diversity is key...
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As the charter movement enters its third decade, it is imperative that policymakers and legislators understand the perspective of those schools that have succeeded in providing their students with a quality education. The charter sector in Ohio is often seen by those outside as a monolith – for better or worse – but Fordham has long known that there are both high-flyers and underachievers. As an organization that focuses on the availability of quality education for Ohio’s children, Fordham feels it is imperative that the lessons of the high-performing charter schools be known above and beyond the “charter sector” as a whole.

As a step in accomplishing this goal, Fordham’s own Terry Ryan has helped form a coalition of high performing charter schools to testify in front of the Senate Finance Committee’s Education Subcommittee. The schools in which these leaders work represent some of the best public schools that Ohio has to offer. While each leader is advocating for their school and telling the story of what success looks like in their cities, they also provide overarching policy recommendations that could help forward the expansion and replication of successful charters including:

  • Supporting the implementation of the Straight-A-Fund
  • Increasing the per pupil facilities funding to charter schools
  • Implementing tougher laws that would lead to the closure of failing charter schools

Below you will find links to the testimonies this coalition have turned in to the Subcommittee.

Andrew Boy, Founder & Executive Director at United Schools Network (USN)

School Profile: ...

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Jane S. Shaw

Michael Petrilli is absolutely right that many Pell grant recipients aren’t ready for college and would be better off doing something else. One sign of poor preparation is the need to take remedial classes in college, and Petrilli recommends that students enrolled in such courses not be given Pell money.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (which I head) offers a somewhat different solution to the same problem. We believe that the federal government should inject an element of merit into the selection of Pell grantees. Thus, in a paper on Pell grants, Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston recommend that Pell-grant recipients have SAT scores of at least 850 (verbal and math) and a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (between a C and a B).

“Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would provide a positive incentive for students to do better in school,” they write. “Students with very low high school academic performance are unlikely to graduate from college regardless of financial aid.”

The two solutions are similar, of course. As we see it, the advantage of our proposal is that it’s an objective standard that would be easy to enforce. Under Petrilli’s proposal, I would worry (as he does) about colleges renaming remedial courses as “regular” courses, something that may already be happening.

The SAT score we recommend, 850, isn’t high. According to the College Board, in order to have a 65 percent chance of...

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Philly’s Schools Phuture?

During the research for my book, one of the most interesting and depressing tidbits I uncovered was that the handful of high-performing, high-poverty traditional public schools described in No Excuses had not been grown by their districts. The central recommendation of my book is that the “four principles of chartering” should be applied across all three sectors; that includes growing great schools of all types (charter, private, and district). Charter growth has been happening via CMOs for more than a decade now, but the Philadelphia Schools Partnership has found a number of district schools to expand. Interesting development.

Addressing Non-urban Poverty

It appears that, slowly but surely, the education-reform community is paying more and more attention to the needs of low-income kids in rural areas (more on this from Bellwether soon). For years now, the primary focus has been on America’s cities. Maybe it should come as no surprise that Teach for America is stepping forward; TFA has long had a number of non-urban outposts. Its new program is designed to train TFA alum for school leadership positions in rural America. This is a tiny program, at least initially, but it’s a start.  Good luck, and well done.

Impervious to Competition?

Probably the bitterest pill I’ve had to swallow as a conservative ed reformer is that competition (from charters and choice programs) has had a positive but negligible influence on urban school districts. Ten years...

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A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. This report became a turning point in modern U.S. education history and marked the beginning of a new focus on excellence, achievement, and results.

Due in large part to this report, we now judge a school by whether its students are learning rather than how much money is going into it, what its programs look like, or its earnest intentions. Education reform today is serious about standards, quality, assessment, accountability and benchmarking—by school, district, state and nation. This is new since 1983 and it’s very important.

Yet we still have many miles to traverse before we sleep. Our students still need to learn far more and our schools need to become far more effective.

To recall the impact of A Nation at Risk these past three decades and to reflect on what lies ahead, watch this short retrospective developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute: A Nation at Risk: Thirty Years Later.

In my recent policy brief arguing for a reboot of charter school governance, I said that states need to create the right policy environment to ensure that management companies aren’t acting as puppeteers determining all the moves of a charter school and controlling the governing boards that ought to be in charge. When boards are mere rubber stamps, questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest are sure to follow (look at the calamity that has befallen the American Indian Model charter schools in California to see how an ineffectual and subservient board can crash even the highest flying charter).

But as my colleague Kathryn Mullen Upton pointed out yesterday, there’s plenty of blame to go around when problems like this surface. Charter boards that agree to arrangements that effectively make them subordinate to managers and vendors are as much at fault, said Upton, who oversees the Fordham Foundation’s charter authorizing operations in Ohio. Moreover, authorizers that grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement bear responsibility, too.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has recommended policies that explicitly assert the independence of the boards that ordinarily hold the charter and ultimately answer to the public. These include performance contracts that not only show how a board will assess a vendor’s performance but will terminate the contract if necessary. And there ought to be laws, just as in Florida, that explain how a governing board will maintain an arm’s-length...

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Redefining the School District in TennesseeTennessee’s Achievement Schools District is the latest character to enter the stage in the most important and interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural-institutional changes in the running and governing of public schools.

For eons, the plot was the same: a district owns and operates all of the public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, if you were in urban America, was that the district-run schools serving most of your community’s kids did so quite badly.

Chartering, entering stage right in 1991, subtly but revolutionarily, showed that other entities could run public schools. A few years later, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s proprietary grip on public education was broken.

Over the course of the 1990s, chartered schools slowly got more and more stage time, growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30% in some areas.

The plot developed with a new strand: more and more state departments of education were empowered to take over individual schools and entire districts. 

In hindsight, this was the play’s most unfortunate interlude—the jump-the-shark scene, the add-a-precocious-child-to-the-cast strategy, the second season of Friday Night Lights.  SEAs, like a dog who chased and caught a car, didn’t know what to do with...

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