Structural vs. Operational Education Reform

New Orleans, LA, January 17, 2008 — The repaired school & branch library building. FEMA funding is helping to rebuild schools damaged and destroyed by flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Manuel Broussard/FEMA.

Neerav Kingsland has a thought-provoking piece entitled “The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale” up on his blog.

He argues that the large effect size shown by a recent study on the New Orleans reform can be attributed to the fact that the reforms were largely structural in nature, rather than programmatic, and that structures are easier to scale and replicate.

My guess is that because New Orleans took on a structural reform, and not a specific programmatic reform, the effort might actually be easier to scale. 

Often times, interventions that show the largest effects, such as labor intensive pre-k programs, require a lot of specialized expertise, high fidelity to implementation, and significant resources.

The confluence of organizational talent, strategy, and implementation is very hard to replicate.

But the New Orleans reforms were not particularly operational in nature. There was no multifacteded curriculum that had to be adopted, no teacher coaching model that required years of training, no wrap-around model that necessitated the coordination of numerous agencies.

This made made me remember a passage from Richard Kahlenberg’s book on Al Shanker, Tough Liberal*, specifically Shanker’s reaction to the Bundy proposal for Ford Foundation funded pilot community control district in Ocean-Hill Brownsville. Shanker’s position could be framed as a suitable counterclaim to Kingsland’s position:

Fundamentally, Shanker argued, the focus on governance changes were a distraction. ‘The tragedy of the Bundy proposals,’ Shanker said, ‘is that they take us away from the question of why children won’t read, why they can’t write, where is the money going to come from and what can we do for these children,’ focusing instead on whether board headquarters should ‘be a little closer or a little further away.’

“Whereas Shanker had supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville pilot as part of a deal to get more money for [More Effective Schools], the Bundy proposal was education on the cheap–a way to be for change while also balancing the budget.”

This isn’t a direct counter to Kingsland’s take, but an interesting counterpoint in the sense of stressing the importance of funding, resources, and interventions over that of governance.

In my view, both facets are important. We need the hard work on the ground and the necessary funding for cultivating and implementing effective programs, but we also need coherent and consistent systems that connect to and organize that work.

Kingsland also makes an interesting claim about governance and structure as a critical strategy in coping with complexity:

“. . . the fact is that the New Orleans model is predicated more on layering in a structure and strategy over a complex system than it is on executing an operational heavy, resource intensive intervention.

In the long run, this is exactly why I think the New Orleans model has the potential to scale.”

This is a claim I find compelling, given the acknowledgement of education as a complex system. I’m just not sure I’m on board with the notion of turning an entire school system into a CMO. While this research is promising, I’m not so sanguine about the replicability of the New Orleans experiment, given the extreme variability of conditions and contexts.

What do you think about transforming an entire public education system into a privately managed system?

*I just happen to be reading it at this moment. Excellent and essential reading.

Turning Schools Around

We’ve pointed out on this blog how closing schools and isolating and ignoring practitioner and parent voices can be detrimental to local communities. But acknowledging this reality does not mean we can also ignore that some schools are indeed failing their communities. And while we can blame a variety of factors for this–such as lack of systemic funding, resources and support; lack of parental engagement; lack of teacher training; short-sighted policies and politics that remove programs that would better develop local economies; and so on ad infinitum–the real question is: what can we do to truly transform a school that is struggling to serve its community?

Note before I continue that there are indeed school systems that are failing, such as in the case that ACLU has made against Michigan’s Highland Park District. I’m not going to tackle this deeper diagnosis here, but want to simply acknowledge that no school is an island — a school is a part of a larger ecosystem, inextricably linked to district and state policies and funding contexts.

That said, I believe that there are some out there who would claim that a struggling school simply requires more support in terms of resources and funding. While such a school is more than likely struggling with basic supplies, I don’t think the charitable and often entirely necessary funneling of more money into a school addresses the underlying issue. The question is how wisely, sustainably, and systematically that money will be leveraged. Many struggling schools are struggling not simply due to inadequate support but moreover from a culture of poor leadership, defeat and/or complacency. And once such a culture has been established, it can be monumental to overturn. While–like an Ent–I chafe at the hastiness that most education reformers advise when it comes to schools that are struggling, there are cases where something immediate and drastic certainly must be undertaken. In ecological terms, we are no longer just talking about basic conservation of the existing ecosystem, but rather carefully managing succession, a process of transformation and introduction of a new paradigm.

Firing all the staff, or half the staff, or just the leadership, and then rehiring new staff and giving the school a new name sounds like a start, if you are a business minded education reformer. But there’s a problem with this approach to public schools. Aside from the obvious fact that a school doesn’t sell anything, a school is also different than a business in that it is much more deeply embedded in the community it serves. Relationships between staff and parents and children are historic and complex. Furthermore, the relationship between that local community and the larger school system can be complicated. Some parents and educators have a deep mistrust of the school system, often for very sound reasons.

In NYC, the clash between a business-minded, “shut-em-down” approach and a vocal and angry school community is constant. And each time a school is shut down in the face of community protest, that relationship continues to worsen.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can dramatically change a school culture, expunge staff that aren’t interested in being part of that change, and positively involve local community leadership and incorporate their perspectives and concerns.

I was talking with a good friend the other day about this problem, which came up as a result of a conversation about collaboration versus competition. On this blog, we have been pretty heavily on the side of collaboration and advocating for much more of it, due to the heavy dominance of competition and markets in school reform agendas at the moment. But his point was that you need a balance of both, so long as the competition has a purpose that is of ultimate benefit to all. Collaboration in and of itself is no silver-bullet. It must have a specific outcome that will be better achieved through involving multiple perspectives.

When I brought up the fact that markets and competition can be detrimental to local communities when schools are closed in the face of community protest, his suggestion was simple: close the school, but involve the leaders in that community in building the ‘new’ school.

In other words, we can have a win/win solution that addresses the concerns of both the business minded reformers and of dissenting local communities. In drastic cases, turning a school around can be necessary, just in the way that turning the soil can be sometimes necessary, but as the new school community is developed, those leaders who were at first vocally opposed to the school closing should be the ones most involved in the creation of the new one.

Turning a school around, in other words, should be seen as a community-wide, collaborative problem solving process, as opposed to a top-down executive order. Yes, indeed, schools that are failing to serve their communities must be turned around. But that turn around will be best achieved when the community is directly involved in its recreation.

But now a word of caution. Looking to the ecological principles that have given us the metaphor of schools as ecosystems, one myth that people have when it comes to a plot of land is that the soil must be regularly turned. But this is false. When soil is healthy, you want to avoid turning the soil. Nutrients are lost and the land is degraded. It’s part of the reason why the Mississippi delta is overflowing with algal blooms, just as one example — farmers overcompensate for soil degradation by plowing the land with fertilizer, which then runs off into the river and eventually out into the sea, upsetting natural balances.

The best thing to do to maintain healthy soil life? Mulch the soil and install plants that will provide the nutrients that are needed. The soil, after all, is the foundation of a garden. Smart stewards of land invest the time necessary to build up soil life by considering the “pioneer plants” that are growing well on a plot of land, designing according to local conditions to maximize sunlight, reduce damaging weather effects, and cultivating the soil so it is resilient and full of microbial life.

In a school, the soil is the community. As Will has pointed out when he introduced us to the term hysteresis, damage to an ecosystem changes the future outcomes of that ecosystem in ways that we can’t foresee. Excepting the drastic cases that I assumed for this post, the better thing to do is to seek to retain, recycle, and redeploy existing staff members (mulch), introduce targeted resources, and install new leadership that will harness and develop existing human capital, while introducing necessary systemic changes to address the deficits in the school community.