When the state of Ohio was looking for a practical, roll-up-the-shirt-sleeves strategist to turn around the academically troubled Mansfield city school district last year, it turned to … the American Institutes for Research?
The state’s choice was not as unorthodox as it might seem. Long established as a Washington-based think tank specializing in objective social-science research, the 1,200-employee nonprofit research group, better known by its acronym AIR, is now also in the business of school district consulting.
For the past 18 months, the 59-year-old organization has quietly recruited former superintendents from Cincinnati, New York City, Seattle, and other cities to spearhead a new consulting division that blends research knowledge with practical know-how in the service of reshaping struggling urban districts.
“We wanted to be a little more active in bringing about change, change that might improve the world,” said Sol H. Pelavin, AIR’s president and chief executive officer. “This kind of work can have more impact than some of the research we’re doing.”
The think tank’s expansion comes at an opportune time. Since 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has put unprecedented pressure on schools and districts, particularly those serving the poorest students, to better their students’ test scores.
What’s more, the federal law authorizes billions of dollars annually to help states pay for improvement services in schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged pupils.
A Focus on Districts
At the same time, experts are beginning to agree that, when it comes to bringing about educational change on a broad scale, the school district may be the best place to start.
“Lots of folks are seeing that schools are nested within a district,” said Joseph Olchefske, the division’s managing director. He was recruited to AIR last year, after stepping down, amid controversy, from his job as the superintendent of Seattle’s public schools.
“We have lots of individual schools that have been successful, but you’ve got to look real hard to find an example of districts that have taken that kind of success and created it to scale,” he said.
Mr. Olchefske’s team also includes: Steven Adamowski, formerly the superintendent in Cincinnati; Libia S. Gil, who headed the Chula Vista, Calif., school system; Anthony P. Cavanna, who has been a superintendent for districts in New Jersey and New York; and Maria Santory Guasp, who was a superintendent of Community School District 9 in the New York City school system.
Jennifer A. O’Day, a nationally known analyst who has written extensively on improving learning through common, rigorous academic standards, leads the division’s research efforts.
Besides Mansfield, Ohio, the division is working with school systems in Chicago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and San Diego, as well as various high-needs districts in New Jersey.
“They are generating more business, sooner, than we originally had imagined,” Mr. Pelavin said.
The development of AIR’s district-consulting division is part of a transformation that began two years ago when the research firm acquired the Alexandria, Va.-based New American Schools, a national group formed in 1991 to bring model improvement programs to schools across the country.
A few months later, AIR also picked up the McKenzie Group, a Washington consulting group founded by Floretta Dukes McKenzie, a former superintendent of the District of Columbia schools.
While some of the administrators had never heard of AIR before Mr. Pelavin approached them, the idea of a research-practice collaboration and the need to focus change at the district level already rang true for them.
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, a former president of New American Schools, said her organization came to that conclusion after watching, time and time again, as its work in individual schools came undone when new superintendents took over.
“Schools were showing steady progress,” she said, “but that progress would be wiped out in the transition.”
The administrators and researchers spent several months poring over studies on district change and constructing an intellectual framework to guide their efforts. The research, though scant, pointed to a few recurring themes on which the group could hang its work.
It found, for instance, that successful districts tended to focus on student achievement and to go about change in consistent, coherent, and comprehensive ways.
Those districts also developed a “theory of action” to guide their decisionmaking. And such theories, the group went on to conclude, typically fall along a continuum.
On one end are the districts that explicitly tell schools what instruction should look like—a method called “managed instruction.” On the other are districts that set basic boundaries and then step in when they see problems. The aim is to create “portfolios” of different instructional approaches within the district that educators have devised themselves.
For example, in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Norfolk, Va., school officials took more of a managed-instruction approach to school improvement. In Seattle, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, the AIR team has concluded, portfolio-type strategies predominated.
Districts also fall along a similar continuum in the degree to which they exert control over what happens in school buildings, according to AIR’s model.
“No district is a pure model,” said Mr. Olchefske. “The question is: How do you blend them?”
Which specific theory of action that a district settles on depends partly on its individual characteristics, he said. Districts with high levels of student mobility, for example, or less-skilled teachers, might favor a managed-instruction approach.
On the other hand, an unhappy history with a centralized authority structure, a highly skilled workforce, or a diverse student population might predispose a district to the portfolio camp, he said.
“We think of our consultants as part doctors ... giving prescriptions and diagnoses,” added Mr. Olchefske.
In Mansfield, a faded industrial city of 50,000 halfway between Columbus and Cleveland, school officials are crafting a hybrid model that incorporates a managed-instruction approach at the elementary level and a portfolio of programs at the high school level. Since the 6,000-student district has just one high school, educators hope to carve it into four smaller learning communities offering a variety of choices.
The Ohio education department hired the AIR consultants to work with Mansfield last year after declaring the district to be in a state of “academic emergency.”
Joyce Y. Adair, Mansfield’s chief academic officer, said the outside team audited the system and made recommendations for changes, most of which the district has since carried out. Student test scores have inched up in the district, though it may be too soon to attribute the improvement to the consultants’ interventions, she said.
“There’s some authenticity there,” said Ms. Adair said of the division’s work. “They could talk from the research base, but they could also say and this is what we did in our organization, and these are the results we got.”
Mr. Olchefske agreed. “While there’s certainly a difference between being a midwife and a mother,” he said, “if you’ve been there, you bring a sensitivity that is pretty well refined.”
Variations on a Theme
AIR is among a number of research-oriented groups and scholars enlisting superintendents in their school improvement efforts.
WestEd, a nonprofit research agency based in San Francisco, deploys retired superintendents to work with failing schools and districts in California. In Connecticut, Harvard University education professor Richard F. Elmore has forged a network of superintendents who work with one another in an ongoing effort to improve learning in their districts.
“There are a lot of us doing different versions of this,” Mr. Elmore said. “But this represents a kind of important response to the situations and pressures that school districts find themselves in now.”
He said the question, though, is whether it’s better to bring in outside consultants to transform troubled districts or to help districts learn how to transform themselves.
“I think you’re still left with the issue of where is the capacity,” Mr. Elmore said. “If it’s not resident in the system, it’s not doing anybody any good.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as Research Group Taps Former Chiefs as Consultants