Schools Succeeding Because of the System, Not in Spite of It
(Lawrence photo courtesy Education Resource Strategies).
In the past three years, Lawrence Public Schools has gone through some enormous changes.
The Boston-area school system once ranked in the bottom 1 percent of Massachusetts districts for proficiency in math and English Language Arts (as highlighted in a recent New York Times editorial), and had not had a permanent superintendent in two years. But by 2014, district-wide proficiency in math rose from 28 percent to 41 percent, the graduation rate increased from 52 to 67 percent, and the number of schools ranked Level 1 (The highest level on Massachusetts’ accountability system) grew from 7 to 21 percent of Lawrence’s 28 schools. Leadership has been steady, and teachers now report greater satisfaction.
“Lawrence clearly has a long way to go” the Times’ editorial board wrote. “But just as clearly, structural reform, starting with the school leadership, can lead to progress in a system that had lost hope just a few years ago.”
We know a little bit about that progress. Last year, our team at Education Resource Strategies studied Lawrence closely. We performed numerous interviews with district leaders, spoke with principals and teachers, and analyzed data from expenditures to student performance, course schedules to teacher assignment. We found that the Lawrence leadership was guided by a crucial tenet: rather than layering new programs on top of broken structures, or trying to fix one school at a time, they would have to transform the entire district, from the inside out. This involved setting a bold vision for student success, making a careful assessment of their resources, and working collaboratively to ensure that every dollar, minute and ounce of talent was well used—system-wide.
We found that Lawrence balanced the need for quick wins with the difficult, long-term work of structural change. To help students immediately, they first implemented programmatic interventions like extra math tutoring and “acceleration academies” -- intensive review sessions aimed at struggling students, held during school breaks. They then focused on getting the right people in the right place, which meant replacing 35 percent of principals and the lowest-performing 8 percent of teachers in the first year. But they knew that the only way to ensure sustainable improvement was to radically change the culture and underlying systems and structures in schools and in the district. Among other things, this involved changes to the teacher contract—developed collaboratively with the union, despite some tension—to create a new career path and compensation system that rewards teachers as they take on new responsibilities and more time. It also involved reducing the central office and shifting $1.6 million to schools, which were now given more autonomy and support to meet the needs of their students.
But Lawrence is just one example of how school systems—even high-poverty ones—can and must transform themselves to meet the needs of all students. For 10 years, Education Resource Strategies has partnered with nearly 30 urban school districts to help them assess their challenges and devise solutions. Drawing lessons from this experience and from our extensive dataset, we created School System 20/20, a vision for school system success and series of assessments that allow districts to measure and monitor how well they use their resources—including people, time, and money—to support excellent instruction.
School System 20/20 spans seven key areas: Standards and Instruction, Teaching, Leadership, School Design, Funding, School Support, and Partnerships. In each of these areas, we have identified metrics and key questions that allow districts to assess how well they target their resources to student needs, and identify where they could improve. This includes data like percent of time students spend in core subjects, the distribution of excellent teachers across schools, amount of sufficient collaborative planning time for teachers, funding equity, and more. It also covers policies and practices like whether the district hiring timeline allows schools to attract top talent, or whether the district invests in enough instructional time for students. Using the School System 20/20 metrics and key questions as a guide, school systems can continue to monitor their progress over time as well.
Neither the Lawrence story nor School System 20/20 represents a one-size-fits-all recipe for school system success. In fact, we are currently studying Aldine Independent School District, a Texas district that has taken a very different set of steps to improve the educational outcomes of its high-need population. But what the framework and both districts have in common is a focus on setting a clear vision for student success, the willingness to transform “legacy” structures and policies, and the tools to better align resources to that vision and student needs. We believe we need (and can) change school systems so that schools succeed because of the system -- not in spite of it.