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High School Reform: Partnerships, Not Standoffs

By Warren Simmons — April 27, 2010 4 min read
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A failing urban school. A union and a school district at loggerheads. And a federal and state policy demanding the “turnaround” of the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

In February, this perfect storm of public education policy and union-management dispute led Frances Gallo, the superintendent of schools in Central Falls, R.I., to fire an entire high school staff of 93—a startling shot across the bow for public educators in this small state and around the nation.

The firings sparked local protests and nationwide headlines, with even President Barack Obama voicing some support for Gallo’s action. The Central Falls saga quickly became a lightning rod for national debate about how to achieve much-needed upgrades for underperforming public schools.

The situation is, literally, close to home for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Central Falls is our neighbor in the urban area surrounding Providence, and we have worked closely with district and community leaders there as part of Gov. Donald L. Carcieri’s Urban Education Task Force. We have seen firsthand that the situation is painful for all involved.

In Central Falls, R.I., where partnerships between the district administration and the teachers broke down, rebuilding social trust will be job No. 1, not an afterthought."

Now, Superintendent Gallo has asked the Annenberg Institute to help facilitate an ongoing, transparent discussion among those with a stake in the school—the district, the union, the students, and the community—and we are committed to ensuring that a major restructuring will be successful and long-lasting.

The events in Central Falls raise issues that many other urban communities around the country will soon be grappling with. Based on our research and work with schools, we know that trust-based partnerships can be effective in addressing the problems of failing schools—if some ground rules are observed.

First, all parties must agree to “own” the problem. In Central Falls, where partnerships between the district administration and the teachers broke down, rebuilding social trust will be job No. 1, not an afterthought. All stakeholders, with their differing perspectives, need to participate in decisions about what will work to improve young people’s learning and development. This includes students, whose interests must be at the center of any reform. The students at Central Falls High School have shown support both for the fired staff members and for Superintendent Gallo’s actions. One thing they made clear at a March 10 rally: They want to have a voice in what happens at their school. And so they should.

Second, those charged with reform should be clear that restructuring requires investment. Changing personnel and/or governance will only bring substantive improvement if there are also changes in curriculum, instruction, and working conditions. Teachers need tools and supports that enable them to raise their students’ achievement levels, especially for English-language learners and recent immigrants. These tools include new classroom materials, new instructional methods, new technology, and professional development tailored to the needs of individual teachers.

Third, reform measures should be evidence-based and sustainable. Urban districts like New York City, Chicago, and Nashville, Tenn., have shown that administrators, teachers’ unions, and community leaders can improve their schools when data—rather than assumptions and conflict—guide advocacy.

Afterwards, sustaining the positive effects of reform will depend on districtwide and statewide policies. The four federal turnaround strategies for failing schools are aimed primarily at the school level. But most policies with a major impact on teaching and learning—such as those concerning curriculum, data access and availability, and school governance and staffing—are controlled by districts and states. If these larger-scale policies are not changed, even drastic restructuring of individual schools will have a limited reach.

Finally, even major changes to the academic process in a traditional school setting will not be enough to help the students there succeed. Young people, especially in historically underserved schools, need a high-quality, comprehensive network of learning and youth-development opportunities and supports, one that is available at many times and in many places—at school, at home, and in the community. We call such networks—high-functioning districts linked to civic and community partners—“smart education systems.” And the turnaround movement should be about building them.

Central Falls’ education stakeholders have been asked to move forward with the complex work of thoughtful, inclusive engagement and debate aimed at building an effective turnaround plan. The eyes of the nation are on Central Falls High School as it tries to realize a vision of what it can be: a learning community that fully prepares young people to succeed not only in college and careers, but also as citizens.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as High School Reform: Partnerships, Not Standoffs

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