Jeremy Kane, director of LEAD Academy, who is featured in this week's Scene
, has drafted a memo outlining a radically different way of approaching education. In it, Kane proposes we undertake a far-out, risky enterprise in which we look at what works at other school districts and see if we could apply any of those lessons here. Sure, that approach may not seem so revolutionary, but in the arena of public education the debate is typically between incrementalism and doing nothing. Kane's memo argues for more meaningful reform designed to foster smaller, more autonomous schools. We're not convinced all of the measures outlined here are feasible, but Kane's proposal is as good a starting point as any for a debate about our district. After the jump, a rough draft of Kane's memo. Though he hasn't finished citing all his sources, we pleaded with him to let us publish it now.
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Jeremy Kane, et al
DATE: December 2007
RE: 21st Century MNPS Transformation Plan
It is an unprecedented time to reform Nashville’s public schools. Citizens of this city are waiting for dramatic education reform. As well, the state and federal governments are demanding Nashville develop a plan to fix its persistently failing schools. There is no time to wait.
At their best, schools serve as the nexus—or community hub—of the collective effort to strengthen families and communities. This is achieved by providing children the cognitive skills to succeed academically, the democratic habits to become responsible citizens, and the support needed to make positive choices. Courageous mayors across the country are abandoning their antiquated, centralized, bureaucratically run school systems and adopting models based on small-sized schools with site-based decision-making. These new models stress school autonomy, greater accountability, and increased investment in teacher recruitment and retention.1
Systemically transforming MNPS is a daunting challenge. Various minimalist strategies—costly strategic plans, rezoning plans, “town hall” initiatives, small learning academies, and other micro-reform efforts—have shied away from reforming the system as a whole. Instead they target one segment of the problem while leaving the rest of the pipeline untouched. This leaves the most persistently failing schools—their human resource black holes, instructional shortfalls, and accountability structures—ill-equipped to improve.
District reform is required. Efforts in other major cities have proven that any attempt to reform an entire district is immediately placed at significant risk if changes are not widespread and not sufficiently brought to scale. Worse, simply investing in high schools could result in even wider achievement gaps since such a reform effort would fail to tackle head-on the elementary and middle schools where students are not getting the study skills, personal habits, and character values they need.
The good news is that enough is known about reforming low-performing, high-poverty, neighborhood schools and the systems that manage them to achieve a vision of growing a great neighborhood school in every community in Nashville. Successful models and positive stories exist all around the country. The challenge, then, is a familiar one: how to organize the know-how and political support to implement district-wide transformation and provide the leadership to make it happen.
This skeleton plan sketched below is intended to focus the debate on a vision for public schools in Nashville and to challenge the parochial interests that have made past progress impossible.
Where do We Begin?
The 21st Century District Plan consists of a 6 pronged strategy which will, within 10 years, transform MNPS into a system in which all students attend schools that are safe, open to change, locally controlled, and run by highly-trained teachers, committed administrators, and dedicated parents. The plan is based on similar plans developed in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, and New York City.
The 21st Century District Transformation Plan consists of the following seven components:
1.Investment in Talent. To be successful, Nashville must be a market for top instructional and administrative talent. Nashville should immediately approach national organizations (e.g., Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and New Leaders for New Schools) that partner with school districts to fill teaching and administrative positions. Nashville should create a non-profit organization to recruit, train, and support a new generation of outstanding principals. And it should overhaul teacher training, mentoring, and oversight, with particular emphasis paid to how teachers are granted tenure.
2.New Small School Creation. All of Nashville’s schools should be reconstituted into new, small schools (500 students or fewer) so as to infuse each school with an energized faculty, a higher degree of personalized attention and instruction, and more openness to student, parent, and community needs.2 This strategy has been employed in Chicago, New Orleans and, most prominently, in New York and Los Angeles, with positive early results.
3.Choice: Having and exercising the ability to choose the school that best fits the individual needs of their students has an incredible impact on parents. Real school choice also allows schools to compete with one another to recruit students and teacher; school choice will also encourage schools to be nimble enough to parental and community needs.
4.Central Office Change. As it is currently organized, MNPS is a centralized organization run to support large, comprehensive schools that lack control over their budgets and curricula. The organization is not designed to support small, community-based schools with local control. To effectively change strategies and begin supporting small, autonomous schools, MNPS must be transformed into a decentralized, service-based organization that relentlessly prioritizes the needs of students and becomes a true service organization.
5.Lean budgeting and increased local control: School budgets under this plan will be significantly decentralized using a weighted student-formula—which includes teacher salaries—so that spending decisions at the school level will help establish overall school-level spending and policy decisions.
6.Increased Accountability: The 21st Century District Transformation Plan also calls for an innovative process called Target:Accountability, which is based on New York City’s Accountability System, to assess the performance of all schools and make them more responsible to students, parents, and community members.
7.New Twenty-First Century Union: To successfully implement the 21st Century District Transformation Plan, MNPS must work closely with teachers and administrators. It should begin by examining the existing collective bargaining agreements to determine if changes need to be made to allow for the effective implementation of this plan, and if changes need to be made to staffing, work hours, and accountability. The human capital portion of the Transformation Plan must be a collaborative one in which all parties have an equal seat at the table and work together to develop effective solutions for the schools. However, it is clear that MNEA, as currently constituted and supported by teachers, is unable to support such a systemic plan. Therefore, it is our contention that an attempt should be made to encourage the formation of a new union similar to Green Dot schools’ Asociacion de Maestros Unidos (AMU).3
The District Transformation Plan In-Depth
Investment in Talent
According to a just-published education report by McKinsey and Company, “The experiences of top school systems suggest that three things matter most: 1.) getting the right people to become teachers, 2.) developing them into effective instructors and 3.) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.” Nashville must create a system for identifying, empowering, and measuring great talent.
Here, as in other major urban areas, teachers are beset and often overwhelmed by the challenges of today’s students. Some of these students, whether they are in regular classes or segregated in special classes or designated schools, are violent or disruptive. Armed police officers (and now roving cameras equipped with face-recognition software) patrol MNPS schools, but classroom disorder still reigns. Experienced teachers often give up. New teachers in particular—fresh from college—are wholly unprepared for what they encounter. The result is widespread demoralization, expressed most starkly in the large numbers of teachers who leave the profession (According to many education experts, a staggering 50 percent of new teachers quit during their first five years on the job).
The transformation of MNPS must begin with a creative new approach to staffing. Due to the demoralized bench of assistant principals, lead teachers, and staff who currently work in MNPS, it is necessary to look outside the district for top talent. Only by infusing the district with high-quality personnel can progress be achieved in the 21st Century District Transformation Plan. Organizations like the New Teacher Project, Teach For America, and New Leaders for New Schools stand ready to partner with a reformed MNPS and must be engaged as soon as possible.
The New Teacher Project (“TNTP”), Teach for America (“TFA”), and New Leaders for New Schools (“NLNS”) are playing an important role in increasing teacher quality in high-need schools across the country. Although each organization approaches the problem in unique ways—TNTP contracts with school systems to fill hard-to-staff positions through a fee-for-service arrangement; TFA partners with a school system to staff positions with recent college graduates who sign two-year commitments to work in at-risk schools; and, NLNS partners with districts to train principals and place them in urban schools)—they each:
Create innovative programs that bring high-quality teachers into hard-to-staff schools;
Identify key obstacles that districts face in hiring the best teachers possible and then advocate for necessary reforms;
Work hand-in-hand with school districts to optimize their teacher hiring and school
staffing functions; and
Develop new and better ways to prepare, develop, and certify teachers for public
Therefore, the 21st Century District Transformation Plan calls for MNPS to contract directly with these three organizations to address the growing issues of teacher shortages and teacher quality in Nashville’s schools. These organizations will not work in a district unless they are invited; their theory is that they only work beset when the approach is a friendly one. Each of these organizations is highly collaborative, working in school district offices and alongside their clients, immersing themselves in the district's operations and gaining a thorough understanding of the complex challenges they face.
Outsourcing the recruitment and training of top talent will improve the flow of qualified teachers into our lowest-performing schools, ensuring that these schools, often in the poorest neighborhoods, will be fully staffed with qualified, committed teachers.
The 21st Century District Transformation Plan is premised on the belief that schools will only succeed at the highest levels if school leaders are given greater authority to design their own paths to success. As a key component of the true system reform, school leaders must have increased flexibility and authority.
Since local control is a concept foreign to the vast majority of the new school leaders, the district must make a major investment in training prospective school leaders. Nashville must create a new culture of leadership in our schools that focuses on empowerment, accountability, and leadership. We as a community must commit to developing school leaders who have the strong vision and values needed to direct schools to serve students, involve parents, and impact communities.
To address the needs associated with this change, Nashville should follow New York City’s lead in placing principal leadership at the center of the 21st Century District Transformation Plan. As part of the overall effort, Nashville should create a separate non-profit organization to recruit, train, and support a new generation of outstanding principals.
The New York City Leadership Academy has been created as the centerpiece of the NYC Department of Education’s transformational strategy. Joel Rose, Chancellor Joel Klein’s Special Assistant, remarked that, “The approach the Academy has taken to leadership development is unprecedented in the public sector. The Academy was modeled after successful private sector initiatives such as General Electric’s John F. Welch Leadership Center and the Ameritech Institute. The Academy is actively working on building a team of 1,400 great principals who are true instructional leaders, who can inspire and lead teachers, students and parents in their school community.”
The NYC Leadership Academy’s training focuses on instructional leadership and management expertise of NYC public school principals. It has designed program tracks for three unique groups:
2.Principals who are new to the NYC Public School system and serving in existing schools; and
3.Principals who are new to the NYC Public School system and opening new small schools.
Codifying the leadership training (see a basic outline of the curriculum below) would ensure that every school leader receives the training to manage a new, locally controlled school. Such a leadership training institute would be relatively easy to start: Vanderbilt University presents the most obvious vehicle, as it offers a wealth of resources, including space, interest, and academic support. As well, it is home to the Institute on School Choice, the first of its kind in the nation. Consideration should also be given to Fisk University as a way of infusing the university with much-needed external investment.
As with all effective training programs, the curriculum must spotlight the environments and challenges Nashville’s schools and their leaders encounter daily. Three major cornerstones must undergird the curriculum and training. These would be:
1.Character Education/Leadership: School leaders must demonstrate leadership in terms of the skills they possess and the character they display. To have the right skills, they need knowledge, which means they must be educated in a wide array of fields (language, history, mathematics, science). They also must be familiar with pedagogy and the skills of instruction. But being successful educators hinges not only on what they know, but on what they are. Particularly in the teaching of at-risk youth, success requires great strength of character. It requires determination, persistence, humility, the subordination of self, sensitivity and sensibility. Frequently it also requires courage. All of these qualities are elements of character.
2.Business Skill: School leaders must possess the business skills (accounting and finance) needed to run and manage a locally-controlled school. There is, unfortunately, the misperception that increasingly autonomous schools are simply schools, when in fact they are relatively large small businesses. Therefore, it is necessary to give the school leaders the skills needed to oversee and manage such a business. Here, every effort should be made to ground the lessons in the reality of the school and its real challenges.
3.Necessary Circumstances: Without “necessary circumstances,” or real-world examples, no training can be effective. School leaders must learn in the environments in which they will lead. Lessons in accounting and finance must be tailored to the arcane world of school finance; character training must be real enough to raise the heartbeat and provide real simulation. School leaders must learn the discipline of persistent effort and its just rewards. Their training must be a life-shaping and life-changing event from which they will draw strength and support the rest of their lives. In this respect the training must be the moral equivalent of any great training, akin to what one undergoes to join an elite military unit or a religious order. It will, in fact, prepare them for a task that is harder and more important than anything imaginable: educating at-risk children in difficult schools.
The kind of training discussed here is not now provided by the educational system. Schools of education teach theory, knowledge and skills. They do not consider it their mission or responsibility to shape the inner being of the teacher or administrator. It is paradoxical that teachers are asked to carry out character education without ever having received it themselves. Yet it is precisely the deepest traits of character—self-discipline, persistence, courage, determination, integrity and empathy for others—that are required of leaders in today’s schools.
Teaching Talent: Training Leaders
Young teachers must be much better prepared for their jobs. According to The Center for Research on Institutions and Social Policy (CRISP), which has consulted widely on issues related to at-risk youth, new teachers benefit enormously from intensive training at the outsets of their teaching careers. There is no such training in Nashville.
To invigorate our public education system, instructors need to be able to master self-discipline and persistence. To reach all students, they need to be trained to meet confrontation without fear, whether the challenge is physical or emotional. To engage parents, instructors must learn true communication, not verbal glibness. To involve the community in their work, teachers must learn to work with others. To truly change our education system, instructors must be trained to lead, to inspire by personal example rather than resorting to control by power.
The research is clear: excellent teachers help students make enormous gains, while poor teachers can actually depress student performance. It must be the mission of MNPS to make all teachers capable of helping students succeed academically. A clear way to raise student performance is to increase the number of effective teachers and to reduce the number of ineffective teachers.
However, almost all teachers now automatically receive tenure after three years. Typically, 99% of teachers who reach the end of their probationary periods are granted tenure. This means that the vast majority of instructors have received what amounts to lifetime job security.
The 21st Century District Transformation Plan must include a Teacher Excellence Initiative to ensure that excellent teachers help our students move forward academically while poor teachers do not find a place in the system.
Small School Creation
Over the last six years, a number of new, small public schools have opened in Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston. Many of these are charter schools that have incorporated the so-called “Six Tenets” model into their operating philosophies. All of these schools are substantially outperforming the traditional public schools in their geographic areas and are proving that schools who follow the Six Tenets are far more successful than those that do not.
MNPS should make a commitment to transform all of its schools into high performing schools that follow the Six Tenets within 10 years. Rolling the Six Tenets out at all schools will not result in a district where every school is the same. Because local control is one of the core principles of the Six Tenets, every school will actually look different as principals, teachers, parents and students customize their schools to meet their unique needs. What will be the same at all schools is that every student will have the greatest chance to be successful because each school will have the core attributes that have proven to be effective at educating young adults.
Even though there are more than 30 failing schools in Nashville, the key ingredients of a good school are no mystery. Nashville, like all other cities throughout the nation, has examples of successful schools, both public and private, that are doing extraordinarily well. What is clear from reviewing a large number of high performing schools is that they share certain fundamental attributes. Steve Barr, the Founder and CEO of the Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, has identified these attributes as the “Six Tenets of High-Performing Schools” or, more simply, the “Six Tenets.” The Six Tenets incorporate the need for greater personalization and rigor in schools, as well as the need for more school-based autonomy, parental involvement and community ownership. If all public schools in Nashville follow the Six Tenets, success will follow.
The Six Tenets
1.)Small, Safe, Autonomous and Personalized Schools: Schools should be small (approximately 500-525 students when fully developed, i.e. K-4, 5-8, or 9-12). Research is clear in showing that small schools ensure that students:
Can’t fall through the cracks;
Receive the personalized attention they need to learn;
Are held accountable for all of their actions.
Research has also found that administrators and teachers in small schools develop personal relationships with students and their families. Smaller schools are also safer and decrease the security risks inherent in urban schools as potential problems can be recognized earlier and mitigated. Additionally, it is easier to implement the other five tenets in smaller schools.
Classes should be kept as small as financially possible. A 23:1 student-to-teacher ratio is often targeted to provide individual attention to students and help teachers instruct effectively in classes with students at varying proficiency levels. (The target average class size for a high school should be 25 students, which is possible to achieve based on current funding in Tennessee.)
As part of the District Transformation Plan, small schools should operate in clusters that share services and facilities, such as athletic fields and gymnasiums, which will allow for a great variety of extracurricular activities. More importantly, clusters of small schools will find it easier to leverage specialized services, specifically special education and English language learner programs, to more effectively meet the needs of all students.
2.)High Expectations for All Students: All stakeholders must have an unwavering belief in the potential of every student and an understanding that every student succeeds with the proper support. As such, all students should take a rigorous college preparatory curriculum in high school.
As part of the 21st Century District Transformation Plan, all students will:
Take classes meeting the Tennessee graduation requirements. All courses will be aligned with American Diploma Project Standards. This will in turn ensure that all students who graduate from high school will have the option to attend college if they choose.
Experience extensive student intervention and support programs that will be offered before school, after school, and during the school day to help students master a rigorous curriculum.
3.)Local Control with Extensive Professional Development and Accountability: Principals and teachers should be the key decision makers at the school site and must be empowered to make all decisions related to budgeting, hiring and curriculum. Recommendations and best practices should be provided by the central district to each school, but ultimate decision-making power and autonomy must rest at the school site.
Local control helps ensure that the administration, teachers and support staff at each school site:
Take responsibility for their schools;
Extensive professional development and a well-codified set of “recommended practices” are necessary to ensure a high level of quality at each school and empower principals and teachers with the tools to make well-informed decisions. In fact, without a strong professional development program, local control can’t work.
In lieu of some services previously provided by MNPS, the newly reconstituted schools will be given spending discretion over substantially greater funds. A portion of these funds will consist of new discretionary funding left up to the principal’s judgment. A review of similar plans show that the amount of discretionary funds will vary depending on the number and background of students served by the school.
In exchange for greater flexibility and control, principals will sign performance agreements that establish expectations and potential consequences. In addition, schools may receive an average of $100,000 in newly unrestricted funds and $150,000 in new, discretionary funds made possible by streamlining the central Bransford bureaucracy and redirecting financial resources back to the schools. Under the 21st Century District Transformation Plan, school leaders will enjoy the freedom to allocate these funds to programs and services they value—rather than paying for mandated programs and services.
An effective system of accountability (See next section: “Accountability Measures”) must also be developed for local control to be effective. If the decisions being made at a particular school site are not proving effective for student achievement, the district must have a system in place that allows it to identify the situation and implement corrective measures.
4.)More Dollars Directed into the Classroom: The entire district organization must be intensely focused on getting more money into the classroom to enable principals and teachers to serve the children. By incorporating best practices from the private and public sectors, and redesigning the school district to support the Six Tenets school model, each school would receive an increased amount of direct BEP funds much like charter schools do today. Like charters, school sites under this new plan would then be required to use that money as efficiently as possible to maximize the amount spent on students.
5.)Parent Participation: Family involvement in a student’s education is one of the most important ingredients to student success. Families should be expected to participate in their children’s educational experience at all schools as part of the Six Tenets model. To encourage parent participation, all families are required to provide a set number of parent participation hours in their children’s education. Participation can range from actually volunteering in the office on campus to reading at home with their child. Schools should offer a variety of programs to get parents and family members involved in their children’s school and academic lives. These programs need to be flexible and anticipate the complex demands/needs of working families. Schools need to reach out proactively to parents, educating them on how they can get more involved and why a positive educational experience is so important.
6.)Schools Kept Open Later: The facilities and resources at MNPS schools need to be made available for community use. Schools should be kept open until at least 5 p.m. daily to provide students with safe, enriching after-school programs. As well, these facilities should be offered to community groups offering quality services to the neighborhood. Allowing community groups to use school facilities helps ensure that the neighborhood takes ownership and responsibility for the school.
Under the 21st Century District Transformation Plan, MNPS must make substantial organizational changes to effectively serve the system of new small schools that will be created. Today, MNPS is a very centralized organization that was created to support large, comprehensive schools. School sites do not have control over their budgets and curricula, but rather are given mandates from the central office. The organization is not designed to support small schools. Therefore, the following organizational issues must be addressed by MNPS if it is to be successful in the creation of small schools on a large scale:
1.) Facilities Management
2.) Financial Management
3.) Staffing and Human Resources
4.) Capacity Building
5.) Bold Leadership
6.) Stakeholder Support
Successfully transforming all MNPS schools into small schools following the Six Tenets requires the rehabilitation and reconstitution of certain schools, the rezoning of school zones, and the creation of new school seats.
As discussed above, the most effective way to transform a failing school is to reopen it as a cluster of new schools and incubate all of those new schools off campus. This requires that the rezoning plan include a study of where new construction is needed, where reconstitution is possible, and where rehabilitation is necessary. Without a doubt, the district will need to reexamine its existing new construction plans and ensure that new buildings (whether new construction, rehabilitation, or reconstitution) coming on line over the next 10 years are designed to incubate new schools and house them permanently.
MNPS must restructure its financial management practices to effectively serve a system of small schools following the Six Tenets. For local control and school-site budgeting to be effective, state and federal dollars must follow students and go directly to school sites rather than first being directed to the centralized district and then redistributed to school sites. Although the restructuring may be difficult up front, the district can be run much more efficiently with a decentralized model, and far more dollars will get to the classroom.
If all MNPS schools invested in applying the Six Tenets at all schools and the district was restructured to support a system of Six Tenets schools, the cost to maintain the central bureaucracy would be substantially less than what is being currently spent. This would free up funds to hire more teachers, pay teachers more, and dedicate more funds to increasing student learning.
Under this plan, schools will receive funds directly from the state and then give a certain percentage to the Central Office to cover oversight, direct services, and overhead costs.
Undoubtedly, there will be some start-up/transition costs related to transforming MNPS’s schools, as facilities will need to be configured, new materials will need to be bought, and technology will need to be purchased. These funds can be secured through partnerships with Nashville’s private sector. A cursory review of the amount of private sector giving in Nashville reveals that the business community in Nashville will willingly rally around a comprehensive and credible plan to reform Nashville’s public schools as long as the leadership exists to see the transformation through.
Staffing and Human Resources
The transformation of all MNPS high schools into Six Tenets schools will generate a number of staffing and human resource requirements for the district. From a staffing perspective, roughly 50 school principals would need to be available to lead all of the new small schools and 500 additional teachers would need to be hired as a result of the improved student-to-teacher ratio and the greater student retention. Many of the new principals would likely come from the large ranks of assistant principals, counselors, and high quality teachers who currently work in MNPS, as well as from a national search for top talent from organizations like Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools, and Education Pioneers. A campus manager may also need to be hired for the larger campuses to manage the use of common facilities (gym, cafeteria, etc.) and facilitate the relationships among all small schools on one campus.
To successfully implement the Six Tenets model, some human resource flexibility may be necessary in the areas of staffing, work hours, and accountability. MNPS must work closely with teachers, whether through MNEA or a newly created and empowered union, to examine the existing collective bargaining agreements and determine if changes need to be made to allow for the effective implementation of the Six Tenets at all schools.
To avoid unnecessary political hindrances, this process must be a collaborative one in which all parties have an equal seat at the table and are working together to develop the most effective solutions. In any future agreement, teachers will be guaranteed a say in all school policy decisions (curriculum, hiring, budgets, etc.), they will be paid more, and they are provided with full health-care coverage. The workday is defined as a professional workday, rather than one dictated by minutes; there are no guaranteed placement rights based on seniority (preference is given); and the goal should be to eliminate tenure (teachers should be protected by “Just Cause”).4
An extensive investment in professional development for all school site and district stakeholders will be critical to successfully execute school transformations. Principals, teachers, and other school-site staff will need to be trained on how to perform in a small school environment. Professional development should be delivered before the district transformation begins and during the initial period of the transformation.
In some districts where reform is now under way, leadership training programs have been created to specifically train principals on how to open and lead new small schools. Individuals working in the central office will require training to help them transition from working in a hierarchical, centralized environment to a flatter, decentralized environment. Professional development should emphasize customer service, as the entire bureaucracy must be aligned around “serving” the new small schools rather than “managing” the schools.
Effective implementation of the school transformation plan requires bold leadership, as the scale and depth of the proposed changes will affect every facet of MNPS. To address the challenge of ensuring effective leadership for the reform of school districts, numerous cities have implemented mayoral control. As 40 school systems across the country have converted to some form of mayoral governance of local schools, research is beginning to validate that mayoral control is a necessary condition for meaningful reform. Since announcing his intention to pursue mayoral control in Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has begun organizing the community and local political leadership of his city around this initiative. It is highly likely that only with the mayor leading the public and private effort will the necessary alignment of governance, district leadership (the superintendent and direct staff), and public accountability be achieved to make bold reform a reality.
Only by including all stakeholders in the process will the 21st Century District Transformation Plan have a chance to succeed. From well-organized stakeholders groups (such as teachers) to individual parents who are concerned about their local school, all stakeholders must be engaged in the process of transforming MNPS and its schools into high-performing schools following the Six Tenets.
All children can learn and improve. A new, decentralized MNPS central office must hold everyone in the system responsible for making certain that this happens. No excuses should be tolerated for the failure of any student.
As part of a new comprehensive accountability initiative, all Nashville schools should receive a graded Progress Report and a Quality Score. This long-overdue school reform will give educators the information to drive high-quality teaching and learning. It will also provide parents the information they need to evaluate schools and assess their children’s progress. Finally, the public will be given a fully accountable system so that it understands whether its tax dollars are working.
All schools will receive a Progress Report with an A, B, C, D, or F letter grade under the 21st Century District Transformation Plan. The Progress Report will measure each school’s contribution to student academic progress, no matter where each child begins his or her journey. The Report does not focus on the capacities students bring with them on the first day but rather on the capacities students develop as a result of attending the school.
There are three broad categories of academic outcomes for which schools under the newly constituted district will be held accountable:
1.Student Performance: Measurements should include the percent of elementary and middle school students at proficiency levels (grades 3-8), and the percent of entering high school students receiving each type of diploma after four and six years (HS).
2.Student Progress: average gains in Reading/Language Arts and Math proficiency (grades 3-8) and in credit accumulation and Gateway tests passed (HS) as students move from one grade to the next at the school. Each progress measure should be sensitive enough to capture and award credit for student progress within as well as across proficiency levels, e.g., credit will be awarded for progress from low level Basic (the lowest level on the TCAP test) to high level Basic, as well as from high level Basic to low level Proficient. This category should receive the most weight since it measures academic progress and correlates directly with national tests and NCLB standards.
3.School Environment: Attendance, safety, and student/parent/teacher engagement and satisfaction should be measured by surveys and in-person team observations.
As to each of these categories, schools will be graded based on:
The school’s outcome in the current year.
A comparison of the school’s current outcome to its performance during the prior three-year period.
A comparison of the school’s performance in the current year to that of “peer schools,” i.e., schools with similar populations (based on free lunch, demographics, ELL, Special Ed, and mobility). To provide richer data and manageable competition, this criterion should receive the most weight.
Whether the school met improvement targets set for that year in the preceding year’s Progress Report.
The overall grade will be based on a comparison of a school’s overall performance on all of these criteria to the performance of all MNPS schools in the recent past. To get an A, a school will have to perform as well as the top 15% of the MNPS public schools in a three-year period; to get a B, a school will have to perform as well as the next 40%; to get a C, the next 30% a D, the next 10%, and an F, the bottom 5%. By pegging grades to historic system-wide performance, you can ensure that a grade of A truly denotes excellence.
All schools should be measured annually on an additional set of non-academic performance in areas of safety, student enrollment, fiscal integrity, or compliance. At the end of each year, MNPS will review information relating to the following:
Maintaining a safe learning environment and complying with all safety-related regulations
Complying with all MNPS enrollment, transfer and discharge policies
Spending consistent with your school’s allocated budget
Complying with procurement laws and procedures
Reporting data timely and accurately
Complying with all other applicable laws, contracts and regulations
Fulfilling requirements related to the evaluation and provision of services to students with disabilities and the identification and provision of instructional programming to ELL students
Rewards and Consequences.
Schools should receive rewards for successfully helping students make progress—and face serious consequences for failure.
“A” schools with high quality scores should be eligible for bonuses and to serve as demonstration sites for peers.
“A” and “B” schools with top quality scores should receive generous extra funding for each student they accept from low-performing schools.
“C” schools should not receive rewards. Schools with three “Cs” [SPACE] in a row should face the same penalties as “D” schools.
“D” and “F” schools should face intervention and potential leadership change; if they don’t or can’t improve, they should close or be open to conversion to a charter or contract school.
How Accountability Will Work
The Administration must enforce high standards, provide schools and families with new tools to track progress, and hold schools accountable for student outcomes. By September 2009, all schools should receive Progress Reports grading them A-F on attendance; parent, teacher, and student responses to surveys; and student performance and progress. The focus is on progress by all students at all levels, with additional credit for big gains by poor, minority, and high needs children.
What is being proposed will not be easy. Philanthropists will need to step up in unprecedented ways; the mayor will need to expend incredible amounts of political support and leadership to guide the civic, philanthropic, and business effort; grassroots community groups and non-profit organizations will have to buy in and provide technical assistance; and there will have to be a powerful on-the-ground public relations ground force.
Parents, students and the general public are demanding change. All of the necessary conditions for dramatic education reform are aligning within Nashville. With the school as the organizing focus, parents, students, local community leaders, teachers, administration, and school staff can effectively be brought together in a collaborative process.
The community organizing effort can be broken into two phases. First, support must be gathered for this plan. Here, increased mayoral involvement in driving education reform is necessary to address the challenge of ensuring effective leadership for the reform of the school district. Only with the mayor leading the effort will the necessary alignment of governance, district leadership (the superintendent and direct staff), and public accountability be achieved to make bold reform a reality.
To set out on the journey of developing a new district where every child attends a high performing school, we must know where we are before we can settle on where we are going. As Richard Riley, former Governor of Colorado, remarked in a speech recently, “The educational paradigm of the factory age is no longer appropriate. That was a world where one-third of our young people were prepared for college, one-third got enough of an education to do simple work in a factory or on a farm, and a third of the students got no education at all. People never talked about failing schools and, unfortunately, not enough people cared about who the students were in those schools.”
Those days are as antiquated as the agrarian economy. We must now attempt to do something that has never been tried in Nashville before, which is to provide all of our students—not just the top third—the chance to graduate from high school and attend college.
We face an emergency in Nashville. Normal rules don't apply. There are no easy answers or good guys or bad guys. Parents of failing students don’t care if the mayor or the superintendent control the schools—they only want their child protected and educated. Students don’t care if they go to a charter school, private school, or public school—they want to feel safe, supported, and validated.
In neighborhoods that are overloaded with crime, neglect, and failing schools, the only way to begin solving the problems of our communities is to stand for a truly distinctive view of the future and how we get there. What is clear is that we can’t do big things if we’re content with doing things only a little better than before.
The traditional approach to educating urban students has been to provide nominal education free of charge and responsibility. While charity might feel good, it does not solve the problem in a scalable and sustainable manner. More often, benign neglect in the form of comfortable half-solutions perpetuates pathologies of dependence rather than creating cultures of empowerment and achievement. Only when are students are converted into leaders can they gain access to the very things many of us take for granted—college, homes, the middle class, good paying jobs.
What is clear is that as families and students trapped in our lowest performing schools get the opportunity to benefit from the choice of a better education, the accompanying social and economic transformation will be incredibly rapid. We’ve seen this around the country as cities and states have widened the door of choice to parents through various comprehensive reform strategies. Even the poorest and least educated among us recognize the better choice when given the chance. It is time we define success, model it, and empower all parts of our community to help students achieve it.