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Education Opinion

Districts: Also on the Hook for Change!

By Justin Cohen — April 14, 2011 6 min read
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Note: Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education, is guest-posting this week. You can read more from Justin on his blog “Meeting the Turnaround Challenge” and follow him on Twitter at @juscohen.

I ended yesterday’s post with what I hope was a provocative question: How do we make the work of the hero turnaround principal more repeatable, while mitigating the extent to which school leaders need to be rule breakers in order to be successful in the turnaround context?

Enter the district in the school turnaround milieu. Federal policy has been remarkably silent with respect to the role of the district in school improvement. Schools have been required to replace principals, turnover staff, change academic programs, and satisfy new compliance requirements. Districts, however, have managed this work without changing the very systems that have been complicit in the deteriorating conditions of persistently low-performing schools.

This isn’t a blanket indictment of districts. It’s fairly rational that districts have adopted systems that can manage incremental improvement in the majority of schools, rather than creating systems that can support rapid, dramatic improvement in a few. As I’ve discussed before, fixing a persistently low-performing institution is a different ball of wax. Supporting the schools in turnaround, however, looks far different than managing incremental improvements. Let’s look at yesterday’s example of the 9th grade reading intervention through the district lens. To facilitate the adoption of the new instructional strategy, the district must - at the very least - find a way to change secondary school ELA certification requirements, leverage the HR department to recruit “reading ninjas,” provide access to the district-wide teacher transfer pool, expedite the dismissal of the least effective teachers, and streamline compliance so that the school is not juggling five different improvement plans.* Districts could deal with each of these issues on a case-by-case basis, or districts could take a page from the charter playbook and create blanket waivers to avoid having protracted negotiations over the minutiae of each instructional decision. The alternative is to micromanage the entire turnaround process, which is unlikely to be successful when most districts do not have significant change management experience.

This goes back to the “Three Cs” I discussed on Monday:

1) Conditions - We tend to put more and more restrictions on failing schools. The feds create requirements, states send in consultants, districts mandate professional development, and more. The job of coordinating the “help” falls to the principal, who also has the not-so-small task of improving the culture and quality of instruction in the school. As opposed to piling on interventions, districts need to clear some operational space for principals to focus on fewer targeted goals and programs, and someone with real authority needs to be in charge of protecting that space.

2) Capacity - Most districts alone have not developed significant change management capacity. If there existed a treasure trove of hero principals somewhere, I would be less worried about this lack of capacity, but there aren’t enough hero principals to address the magnitude of this challenge. Turnaround is partly a human capital challenge, but we need to do a better job of acknowledging that’s in organizational strategy challenge as well. Some of the best partner organizations in the country - which we call “Lead Partners” at Mass Insight - have rationalized the work of the principal by creating organizational strategies that manage “up” district compliance requirements, while managing “down” to make good principals even more effective. The Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago and Mastery Public Charter Schools in Philadelphia are two great examples. Districts should look at these organizations as an opportunity to “insource” talent and school-level change management expertise, rather than viewing partnership as an abdication of responsibility.

3) Clustering - Whenever I visit a high school where a huge proportion of 9th graders are reading below grade level, I realize that we’ll never solve this problem without creating more meaningful academic articulation from pre-k through 12 and beyond. Linda Perlstein captured this more eloquently than I can in a piece she wrote a couple of years ago. Creating meaningful clusters of turnaround schools will a) make it easier to focus system-wide energy on creating the correct policy conditions, b) facilitate the development of a more robust marketplace of highly-effective Lead Partner organizations, and c) will create less uncertainty when students advance from elementary to middle, and middle to high.

The role of the district, then, should be to create a protected space for turnaround principals and Lead Partners to exercise significant school-level authority, while maintaining strong control over the expected leading and lagging indicators of change. In other words: tight on ends, loose on means.** This can be achieved by creating performance contracts with Lead Partners to manage the day-to-day change process in schools. In geographies where we are unlikely to find Lead Partners, districts and civic communities should come together to create entirely new in-district organizational units to manage the change, while vesting external “Advisory Councils” - composed of empowered stakeholders - with the authority to provide both political cover and a sustaining force for the work, in the nearly inevitable case of leadership turnover during the turnaround process. The critical point is this: whether you use an external Lead Partner or an internal unit, change management expertise is a must.

Districts should also empower a “District Turnaround Office” to make critical decisions on behalf of those schools at the district-level. Too often the “turnaround” unit is buried under several layers of bureaucracy, providing little meaningful leverage to execute the kind of dramatic, politically difficult changes necessary to make this work successful. The District Turnaround Office should report directly to the superintendent, while giving that unit explicit authority to move district resources and policies. As the CAO of the Charlotte schools recently put it to me, we need to do a “status inversion”... instead of treating failing schools like our basket-cases, we need to treat them as our priorities and greatest opportunities for rapid improvement.

It also helps - as Public Impact has suggested - for districts to more rapidly abandon strategies that aren’t producing desired results. This is unfortunately somewhat novel in education, as we tend to start a ton of things without stopping anything. Education Resource Strategies also has created useful tools for districts to determine how best to tackle the work at the systemic level. They also illustrate that turnaround doesn’t need to blow a hole in a district’s budget, as SIG funds can be coupled with cost-avoidance measures in other parts of systems.

I’d love to say something witty in conclusion, but my wife is done watching Jersey Shore and thinks it’s time for bed. Next up, the state and federal roles ...

--Justin Cohen

*This will only make sense if you read yesterday’s piece.
**Every time someone makes this statement, Mike Petrilli gets his wings.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.