From small schools to powerful tools for school improvement: A conversation with Mark Dunetz about the evolution of New Visions for Public Schools

In 1989, New Visions for Public Schools was founded on the belief that public/private partnerships and small school designs could help improve the drop out rate in New York City schools. Since then, the organization has gone through several iterations, expanding from a focus on incubating small schools, supporting a network of small schools, and most recently developing data-based tools that can support the work of educators across and within schools. To better understand this evolution and the issues that New Visions is working on today, we spoke with Mark Dunetz, the Vice President for School Support at New Vision and previously a principal at a New Visions high school.

 

New Visions 1.0: An Incubator For The Development Of Small Schools

The early evolution of New Visions for Public Schools reflected the growing interest and commitment to the development of new small schools that swept the United States in the 1990s. In fact, while New Visions began with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to create an after school program to engage students in community service, by 1993 they had received a $25 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation to create 14 new small schools in New York City. In 1996, they officially adopted the name New Visions for Public Schools in order to reflect their focus on supporting the development of wide variety of teacher- and student-centered small secondary schools. With grants from the Gates Foundation and other funders, New Visions has gone on to open 140 schools in New York City. Interestingly, although divisions are often made between those who support opening new public schools and opening new charter schools, New Visions has done both. As the number of charter schools in New York City and elsewhere has grown throughout the 2000’s New Visions has opened up seven charter schools. As one of the few organizations bridging the “charter divide,” several of New Visions’ charter schools have been opened in cooperation with the teachers’ union and Michael Mulgrew, current President of the local union, sits on the New Visions Board. Counting both the public schools and charter schools that New Visions has opened, today, 1 in 5 students in New York City schools attend a school either opened or currently supported by New Visions.

 

New Visions 2.0: Supporting the Development of a Network of Schools  

New Visions’ expansion from starting new schools to supporting and sustaining a network of schools took advantage of significant changes in local educational policies made after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002. Bloomberg, along with School Chancellor Joel Klein, sought to dismantle what they saw as an inefficient and overly-centralized school bureaucracy, by releasing schools from direct oversight by area superintendents. In contrast, they sought to grant local schools and principals with autonomy while holding them accountable for improvements in student performance. A central element of their approach was the creation of a competitive environment in which School Support Organizations tried to attract schools that would pay for their services. Rather than remaining centered on the creation of new small secondary schools, New Visions embraced this opportunity to become a School Support Organization and began to work with both new and existing schools on day-to-day operations. As a result, New Visions expanded to work with both large and small schools, as well as transfer schools (schools designed to re-engage students who have dropped out or who have fallen behind in credits) and grade 6-12 schools. Dunetz described this as a “laboratory for doing deep work on the day-to-day of everything happening in schools.”

 

New Visions 3.0: Creating Tools to Innovate Across the System

With another change in school administration in New York City, New Visions has expanded its focus again. In 2015, following the election of Mayor DeBlasio, Carmen Fariña was appointed the new Education Chancellor for New York City schools. She ushered in changes to the organizational structure of the system that included re-establishing the role of local superintendent and eliminating the competitive marketplace for School Support Organizations. However, because New Visions along with a few other organizations was regarded as an effective network-provider, it was allowed to retain its network of schools. As a result, New Visions still works with a select group of schools; however, the support is no longer provided in a marketplace environment. Schools can opt to be members of the New Visions PSO Network for a three-year period. As Dunetz described it, this allows New Visions to play out a set of strategies and focus more on innovation and less on competition. While there was always an explicit expectation that New Visions would work on a set of strategies that would in theory have value for the larger system, in some ways they are also back in a place where they can serve as an innovation lab and incubator for the development of tools and practices that address some of the key problems that their schools and others face.

Today, as Dunetz explained, many schools face challenges implementing their visions. From his perspective, efforts often fail at the point of implementation because people can’t organize quickly and efficiently enough to carry out anything substantially different. As he put it, “I’ve seen that innovations don’t last over time because people can’t keep up with it and can’t work out the details of something non-traditional.” Furthermore, he argues that success may be more likely to happen in places with select or non-representative student populations – where students are screened and the organization and the normal pressures of traditional schooling may be reduced. According to Dunetz, “The places that have tried to implement innovation with a typical non-selective population and with large numbers of students, they tank academically and wind up regressing towards common practice.”

In order to combat some of these challenges, New Visions’ current work focuses on finding ways to use technological tools to target areas in need of support in schools—tools developed from his own experiences as a principal. For example, New York City has a complicated set of graduation requirements that makes it very difficult for schools to keep track which students are making progress at an appropriate rate. Traditionally, every principal and school has had to figure out how to solve this problem on their own. However, New Visions worked with their schools to develop a scheduling tool that makes it possible to see whether students are enrolled in the appropriate classes and gaining the credits that they need. As Dunetz described the issues and their current approach:

I experienced, along with my colleagues, that you could do a whole lot with simple technology. Tools have become one really big piece of our strategy. We no longer see it as a necessary evil, where you have to go out and find a vendor that is the least bad. We see the control of the development of those tools as a very powerful mechanism for changing behavior.

 

Where we shifted a year and a half ago was to a much more explicit modeling of what it looks like to use tools at the administrative level. Now we’ve got to go to other levels. We do what we call  “strategic data check ins.” These are scripted, protocol-driven conversations that look at key planning tasks organized around the tool, or multiple tools. We do it largely through Google hangout, so we can do a large number of schools over a period of time. We go through and come up with plans that are recorded alongside the data, and then we pull back and look across so we can be a second set of eyes. That’s become a core part of our strategy and it’s become tremendously successful at shifting practice at scale very quickly around very high stakes things, like what constitutes a meaningful graduation plan and what are the smartest strategies for sitting and preparing students for Regents exams. We can organize systematically. That’s a huge step forward for us.

 

Today, New Visions is focusing on the notion that in order to be effective at regular planning you need a common reference point that is updated and available to everyone involved. The organization is working on designing a framework that takes information out of the heads of the many individuals who work with students, and puts it on paper. Dunetz described this information as more specific than generalized information, but not prescriptive for solving problems. “It’s the guts of the system,” he explained. “It’s what needs to happen in order to be able to sustain innovation, and to be transparent. See all moving pieces and what is and isn’t being implemented with fidelity. It’s different than what people are used to. People are used to a highly prescriptive checklist. Our hope is to get schools to a level of functioning on a whole set of things that can be solved in a short period of time.” With these developments, New Visions now has over twenty staff members working on data analytics and designing systems and structures that can be used by their schools and others.

All in all, New Visions has expanded from starting small schools, to incubating small schools, to leading a network of schools. Now, it serves as one example of a new kind of educational organization that goes beyond school design and school support to develop tools and practices that meet the day-to-day needs of teachers and principals in schools of all kinds.

Deirdre Faughey

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