Thursday, August 11, 2011

CMS reform: Thumbs up or down?

I recently reported on the results of the first three years of strategic staffing,  former Superintendent Peter Gorman's quest to let top principals and proven teachers turn around struggling schools.  It's tough to render a verdict, given that promising gains are mixed with widely varied results.

That's disappointing.  Three years feels like a very long time in a world where urban superintendents seldom last much longer.  It's a safe bet that whoever gets Gorman's job will come in with new strategies  --  nobody gets hired saying "Things are pretty decent here;  I think I'll maintain the status quo"  --  and we'll have to start the clock again to see if anything really works.

Folks who study such things say there's seldom a simple answer.  Sometimes you just end up with new and better questions.

Cheryl Pulliam,  research director of the Public Education Research Institute at Queens University,  has worked with CMS on evaluating strategic staffing.  She and the CMS crew have done some smart comparisons of the gains at strategic staffing schools compared with those at other CMS schools serving disadvantaged kids;  the results have been inconclusive.  She's familiar with the tension between the approach of principals such as Sterling's Nancy Guzman,  who swooped in demanding change and got quick results,  and those such as Reid Park's Mary Sturge,  who thinks slow and steady is the way to build lasting change.

Pulliam's questions, as the effort moves forward:
  • Can principals like Mary Sturge keep teachers there long enough  (that is , reduce turnover to practically zero)  so she can build that capacity and buy-in she needs to build the culture she needs,  or will it be a continually rebuilding? 

  • Have Devonshire and Sterling  (the highest-performing strategic staffing schools)  reached a plateau so that it makes it even more difficult to raise the scores even higher?  If so,  what’s next to get them up and over any plateaus?

  • Has CMS developed that succession plan needed for all these schools so that progress isn’t lost when the principal moves/retires/is transferred?

Ross Wiener of The Aspen Institute's Education and Society Program gathered superintendents from around the nation last year to learn more about strategic staffing in CMS.  When I emailed asking for his take on the three-year results,  he,  too,  replied with more questions,  and some interesting thoughts:

You're asking an important question that will come up more and more often:  What is success in a turnaround school?  What is success for a district that is managing multiple schools?  Is it success if performance is better than trends would have suggested without the intervention? Being among the fastest gaining/progressing schools?

The sector has a pretty bad track record with sustained turnarounds,  but nothing compares with the scale of efforts over the last few years  --  so we'll have a lot more data points and more info on which to answer the question of what constitutes success.

I still think there are important innovations in the Strategic Staffing model and that others will continue to look to it for guidance.  There are few other places I know of where the district put together such a comprehensive change package.  Two particular aspects seem promising:  CMS was able to give high status and prestige to working in a turnaround school,  and managed some of the most sensitive parts of the process at the district level  (e.g.,  staffing,  including removing teachers the principal didn't think were a good fit;  assigning accomplished central office administrators to support roles).  In most other places,  each school has operated as a "one-off" and had to solve lots of issues on their own,  while SSI took the step of making the turnaround a district responsibility.

None of that is to diminish the focus on results.  I'm not in a good position to do comparative analytics from here,  but if the results aren't what was anticipated,  then CMS needs to dig in and understand what distinguishes the most successful from the least successful and average.  Were any of the hypotheses for improvement implemented with rounds 2+3?  What can be learned from other turnaround efforts in NC and other states?

Others will still seek to learn from SSI because it is at the vanguard of what are still-nascent efforts to turn around the lowest-performing schools at scale.  Unfortunately,  there are not models that have worked consistently and at scale.  So we have to pay attention to serious efforts and modify based on results and on local context.  Better alternatives have to be created, they can't merely be chosen from among existing alternatives.

When things go well in turnaround schools,  it's always because educators on the front lines responded to thousands of unexpected challenges with the right mix of sensitivity,  tenacity,  and flexibility  --  each in just the right measure at just the right time.  There is no formula for doing that well,  but CMS has made some smart bets in creating the conditions where this work can flourish.  We need to learn from these efforts and keep getting better.

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