School & District Management Opinion

What Went Wrong at Manual High?

By Gary Lichtenstein — May 16, 2006 8 min read
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Denver’s Manual Education Complex was, for a time, the mother ship of small-school conversions. It was going to be the country’s first case of a comprehensive high school’s successfully converting to smaller schools without first closing for a year. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave generously to the Manual project, and its implementation was strongly supported by the Colorado Children’s Campaign (with which I am associated) and other local foundations. Now, five years later, the mother ship has sunk, swamping high expectations within the Manual community and across the country. In a sad irony, the Denver school board member who formally proposed that the school be closed was also the president of the Friends of Manual organization, which had been among the most enthusiastic promoters of the small-school reforms five years earlier.

—Patti Raine


The Colorado Children’s Campaign has issued a 10-point list of “lessons learned” from the Manual experience. (“Failed Breakup of H.S. in Denver Offering Lessons,” March 15, 2006.) It now says, for example, that reform efforts must rely on strong principals, promote ongoing professional development, maintain high expectations for students, and personalize student advising. Yet nearly all of these lessons and others on the list already had been gleaned from prior research into school reform generally, and the successful operation of small schools specifically, well before the Manual conversion. In fact, many of these points composed the agenda of the small-school reforms.

What actually happened at Manual? Three small schools were indeed created, one on each floor of the three-story school building. Personalization was enhanced: Students knew each other and their teachers and administrators, and still do. But other components of the reform, such as individualized school themes and theme-specific curricula, were never developed or implemented. More significant and troubling, the key outcomes expected of the reform—improved student retention and achievement—were not attained either. Given the huge investment of time, energy, and dollars (nearly $2 million), why weren’t the stakeholders involved able to bring about those outcomes? Since I was the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s director of research and evaluation during the Manual small-school reforms, that is the question that keeps me up at night.

The Gates Foundation has its own explanation. In recent statements, it has contrasted the Manual experience with successful conversions it has funded in San Diego and elsewhere—examples, it suggests, of how reform should be done. By this means, it has shifted blame for the problems at Manual onto the school and the district. But in fact, the foundation is as much implicated in the Manual failure as any other stakeholder. Though similar efforts elsewhere have not resulted in such dramatic disappointment, current research suggests that the hoped-for achievement gains for schools undertaking conversions have not materialized. Again, this is puzzling, considering the resources devoted to such reforms, the good intentions of all stakeholders, and the overwhelming consensus on the desired outcomes.

Still, there are clues as to what went wrong. My staff and I conducted interviews with all the stakeholders involved in the Manual reform, including students, parents, teachers, principals, district administrators, and community members. The data do not suggest that the reform failed to achieve its promised outcomes because the district didn’t support small schools generally or because of ineffective principal leadership. In fact, everyone we interviewed and observed during the process was committed to improving conditions at the school and increasing student retention and achievement.

But when we look beyond this consensus, we find several competing agendas. Small-school reforms at Manual began just as district leaders were gearing up for a major, districtwide curriculum reform of their own. Elements of the small-school reforms that were perceived as critical by the intermediaries (theme-based curricula, for example) were seen by many district staff members as an impediment to the district reform efforts.

Ultimately, the external intermediaries and the district leadership were unable to reconcile these competing agendas. While the intermediaries by and large viewed small-school conversion as the main event, district personnel viewed it in relation to other, districtwide reforms. Had there been more time or will, the two perspectives might have been reconciled, and the reforms might have proceeded more smoothly. But such was not the case. One lesson that might be learned from the Manual experience is that when external reform agents are pitted against a district, the district inevitably wins. Or, more precisely, no one wins.

To gather meaningful lessons from Manual, we first must see the experience as a failure of the reform process itself. Intermediary organizations such as the Gates Foundation, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and others must ask not simply, “How can we implement our reform?” but rather, “How can we break through the historic obstacles to improving the schools in which we work?”

The Gates Foundation has recognized that strict autonomy for schools at a single conversion site impedes rather than facilitates effectiveness.

Many have commented, for example, on the hasty implementation of small-school reforms at Manual. Once the plan was adopted by the Denver school board in April of 2001, a mere four months were left in which to create three small schools within Manual, hire principals for them, and work out myriad resource and facilities issues. There also was the challenge of informing and involving parents, students, community members, and, of course, teachers in major decisions having to do with developing and implementing school themes and curricula. There simply wasn’t enough time to complete these critical tasks before the three new schools opened that August.

Why the haste, one might ask? The driving factor here was that the project’s large infusion of funding from the Gates Foundation was predicated on a three-year, nonrenewable grant. Every element of the reform was affected by that short timeline. In addition to working out the intricate details of implementation that small-school reform necessarily entails, time is needed for intermediary staff members and district personnel to come to understand the expectations, constraints, and pressures operating on each side. There must be time for the unfolding of a participatory process at the school level, and for the development of collaborative working relationships between school personnel and the district staff. If the external funders and intermediaries had made that time available at Manual, they might have prevented the collision of the small-school reforms with ongoing district reforms.

What else can we learn from the Manual experience? The Gates Foundation has recognized that strict autonomy for schools at a single conversion site impedes rather than facilitates effectiveness. That is a lesson learned. At Manual, rigid adherence to the values of autonomy mandated by the foundation resulted in blocked access to gym facilities (on the first floor) for students on the second and third floors; lack of access to a media center (on the second floor) for students on the other two floors; and inadequate access to textbooks, since class sets of books were divided into thirds and distributed to the three schools, even though class sizes did not shrink. School autonomy was, for the external partners, nonnegotiable. But democratic processes and collaborative relationships are not characterized by nonnegotiables.

Many of the conditions that hindered the successful implementation of small-school reforms at Manual in Denver persist in similar reform efforts nationwide.

Research has demonstrated over and over again the intractability of school districts. Although the specific challenges vary with each school and district, the underlying factors are largely predictable. Yet we should not attribute this intractability to a lack of commitment or will on the part of those who have devoted themselves to working in such districts. They face pressures and constraints unappreciated and often unknown by intermediaries.

The critical point is this: If struggling urban school districts could improve students’ graduation rates and achievement on their own, they would have done so by now. There is tremendous promise in the commitment that external agencies—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation foremost among them—have made to school reform. But that promise can only be fulfilled if reformers demonstrate a genuine and lasting commitment not merely to the reform, but also to the schools, districts, and communities in which they are involved. As external agents, we are guests. Unless we take seriously the circumstances in which district leaders operate—the pressures, legal constraints, and prior commitments—we will be unwelcome guests. And if we are unwelcome, our efforts will inevitably fail.

Many of the conditions that hindered the successful implementation of small-school reforms at Manual in Denver persist in similar reform efforts nationwide. So it is worth examining—seriously and nondefensively—how external agencies insinuate themselves into the lives of schools and districts, and how they can promote their visions and implement their objectives in ways that build cooperation and collaboration, rather than contention and divisiveness.

Support from entities like the Gates Foundation and its intermediaries, in concert with district commitment and effort, is the most promising vehicle we currently have for transforming schools, particularly in urban districts. Can such organizations practice the values of reflection and responsibility that characterize the rhetoric of the small-school movement? If so, there is hope that we may actually learn, from our experience of the past five years, how to overcome the perennial challenges of school reform.

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