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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Scaling Strategic School Designs: Freeing Resources, Encouraging Innovation

By Guest Blogger — May 07, 2014 5 min read
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Note: Karen Hawley Miles, president of Education Resource Strategies, is guest posting this week.

On Monday, I wrote about the challenges that charter funding creates for urban districts, and offered some recommendations for how states and reformers could help school systems better respond to these new realities.

But we know that when it comes to funds, it’s not just about how much you have, but how well you use it. In this realm, charters have been given the opportunity to innovate: with their money, but also with explicit flexibility to organize people, time, and technology in new ways. In some instances, charters have provided proof points of new school designs that generate high-performance, often with about the same or less resources than traditional schools. For example, Generation Schools in Brooklyn and Denver reorganize the school calendar to incorporate intensive courses related to college and careers, and maintain standard teacher work hours through staggered schedules. City High in Pittsburgh creates interdisciplinary teacher teams and addresses individual student needs through flexible grouping of students. Summit Public Schools in California uses a blended learning flex model to provide personalized learning. These are just some examples of the many ways schools can use their resources differently.

While flexibility on its own doesn’t guarantee smartly organized or high-performing schools, I would argue that increased flexibility makes it much easier for school and district leaders to create and sustain high-performing designs--which we urgently need to do to meet the increased demands that Common Core will place on our most challenged schools.

Unfortunately, traditional district schools are often wrapped up in a tangled web of district, state, and contractual requirements that make innovation difficult. To use Rick’s phrase, some of what’s needed is “cage-busting"--breaking out of traditional mindsets to seize possibilities. But there are also very real boundaries that school districts and policymakers need to remove before traditional schools can become strategic schools. Some of the most important include:

Hiring: When we speak with principals, the first thing they say is that they want control of who is in their building. However, late hiring timelines, rules around hiring from internal candidates, seniority-preferences, and even “forced placement” mean that school leaders are not able to choose the full staff that is right for their needs. In some districts we have worked with, principals actually “hide” vacancies from the central office until the last possible moment, so that they’re not forced to take a candidate they might not want. We want to honor due process for tenured teachers, while also improving districts’ hiring practices to build a deeper talent pool earlier and prioritize “mutual consent” for all.
Staffing/ assignment: District rules and contractual agreements often determine what positions must exist within schools and who can be assigned to them. It might seem reasonable to ensure that every school gets an assistant principal, librarian, or PE teacher. But in a time of limited resources, innovative school leaders should be empowered to meet their students’ needs with the funds they have. For example, a charter school could contract out PE to a local YMCA, or art and music instruction to a local nonprofit, in order to free up resources to hire an extra math teacher. District schools are highly constrained in this area. In one district we’ve worked with, schools were technically able to hire part-time staff, but only if the district could bring them up to full time through employment elsewhere.
Scheduling: Complicated rules around scheduling often don’t allow school leaders to concentrate time on the most important priorities--from freeing up extra academic blocks for students who are years behind, to revamping the entire school day to allow for flexible grouping, blended learning, and individual attention. Sometimes these regulations even fly in the face of what teachers want: in one large urban school district, the contract states that teachers can vote on how to use their allotted professional development time. However, even if all teachers in a school agree, the union president can still veto this plan if he or she deems it a bad precedent for other schools.
Small school size: These flexibility concerns are most difficult for small schools. Many people hold up small charters as proof that small schools can operate sustainably. However, small schools in traditional districts are often trying to survive under “big school” rules--a damaging mismatch.

Some traditional school districts have found ways to lift these constraints through creative, “cage-busting” actions. But to achieve reform at a wide scale and at the pace we need, we can’t take a piecemeal approach to flexibility. Districts need political help at the local and state level to promote a broader set of flexibilities. Some examples include:

Reduce restrictions on hiring: Many districts and states have eliminated seniority as the predominant hiring criteria. In addition, districts like Boston Public Schools find that changes to the hiring and evaluation process make a big difference. This year, BPS moved the hiring timeline from July to March, and invested in a set of changes that guarantee no school will be “forced” to take a teacher who doesn’t meet its needs.
Consider granting “district charter” status: Georgia created a “charter system” status that grants certain districts--those that can show a compelling strategy--freedom from state regulations around compensation, certification, staffing, and time in exchange for increased accountability.
Legislate district-level flexibility for certain schools coupled with clear accountability for results: Ohio’s HB525 legislation grants each district’s CEO the authority to make changes to the lowest performing schools, outside of collective bargaining agreements. Colorado has created an “innovation school” status that frees schools from a host of state and contractual restrictions.
Inspire and support principals to create strategic school designs: In Denver, all schools (including charter schools and innovation schools) have access to a menu of support and training through the Office of Strategic School Design.

Whatever the intervention, the key is to pair new flexibilities with support for transformation and accountability for results.

I’ll conclude Friday with some final thoughts on the teaching job and compensation.

--Karen Hawley Miles

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.