Schools and districts depend on a host of outsiders to help them create powerful learning experiences for all their students. A loose collection of curriculum providers, tutoring programs, staff developers, management consultants, and school designers forms what education professor Brian Rowan calls the “school improvement industry.” Debates have swirled around these external providers for some time. On the one hand, federal funding intended to support evidence-tested strategies that help schools improve has fueled their growth. On the other, critics charge the spread of these outsiders has come with little evidence of improvements in student learning.
Numerous factors contribute to this complicated state of affairs. Schools face constant demands to make rapid improvements in student performance. And it takes significant time, effort, and costs to develop programs and prove their effectiveness. Although some providers have demonstrated the effectiveness of their programs through research, with thousands of schools seeking to improve, it should not surprise us that they turn to thousands of materials, practices, and programs that are not yet proven.
Policymakers and school leaders can’t sit on the sidelines waiting for outside providers to produce more effective programs. They need be able to take advantage of all available support and to use it thoughtfully as part of an overall strategy to improve student learning.
Policymakers and school leaders can't sit on the sidelines waiting for outside providers to produce more effective programs.
To help policymakers, school leaders, and providers understand the possibilities and challenges of this work, my colleagues and I studied the nature, extent, and collective impact of programs aimed at improving student learning available in one subject (reading) at one level (public elementary schools) in one large urban school system (New York City).
Our recent research brief and report documented more than 100 programs that work directly with students or teachers to improve reading outcomes in New York City public elementary schools. A review of a representative sample of 26 of these programs revealed a wide range of goals—some programs focused on specific skills like improved reading comprehension, others on the mastery of common-core standards. Only 19 percent of the sample programs had publicly available evaluations reporting on their outcomes, although many were using research-supported approaches.
The programs demonstrated substantial reach, however, suggesting that this school improvement industry could serve as a valuable lever for system-wide change. In fact, 26 of the sample programs were reaching 16 percent of all elementary schools in the city.
We also found some basis for collective impact, as just over half of the sample programs were implemented in collaboration with at least one other sample program. At the same time, the sample programs got support and information from a wide range of sources of funding and expertise that are themselves likely to be only loosely related.
What would it take to increase the collective impact of this external support? Long-term strategies can build on efforts at the national level to identify effective programs, to support research use, and to foster networked improvement communities. At the local level, districts, providers, and funders can all pursue short-term strategies to promote greater coordination, coherence, and collective impact right now:
- Share information and build awareness by regularly mapping which programs are providing support in key aspects of schooling. Periodic scans of the educational environment in areas like reading, math, and school improvement could identify the outside support available, reveal areas of overlap, and expose underserved areas where more support might be needed. Anyone can take the initiative in this work: districts, schools, providers, or funders.
- Support coordination, common understanding, and coherence. Local hub organizations can bring together stakeholders from inside and outside schools to jointly reflect on the information from these periodic scans and other research. These hubs could then identify common needs, discuss relevant research and effective practices, and develop agreements on standards and expectations.
- Build broad coalitions for collective impact. Alliances and collaborations could enable strategic partners to take on emerging needs in local neighborhoods or broader regions.
Everyone involved must recognize the need for greater investments in building the capacity of both external support providers and schools. In the meantime, these three strategies establish a middle way between adding more bureaucratic requirements and letting “1,000 flowers bloom.”