“What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?” But “What if it isn’t? What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the conditions that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?” These are the questions that IEN Editor Thomas Hatch asks in the 2nd commentary in a series launched by Corrie Stone-Johnson and the Journal of Educational Change. These questions build on the first commentary in that series by Yong Zhao and Jim Watterston – “The changes we need post-Covid” and follows up on last week’s IEN post from Larry Cuban – “Downsizing school reform.” Future posts on IEN will track both what changes in schools and what does not in order to reveal the conditions and constraints that have to be addressed to transform education over the long term. These IEN posts are part of a long-term project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts and follow-up on issues Thomas Hatch, Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021).
“We will now resume our regular programming…”
Excerpt of a commentary from Thomas Hatch originally published in the Journal of Educational Change, August 2021 (Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website)
The times are always changing. The question this year is whether we can build on some of the changes schools made in the face of the coronavirus and reimagine education altogether. Like many, I am hopeful that we can take advantage of the current moment to make at least a few meaningful steps in some of these directions.
Nonetheless, my work over the past thirty years on school improvement and school reform efforts in the US and in “higher” and “lower-performing” countries also makes me deeply skeptical. Time and again, I have seen how ambitious plans and visions fall short of their aspirations. As a consequence, although I believe this may be a crucial time to ask: “What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?”, I also know that we need to ask a second question: “What if it isn’t?” What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?
Is there a real opportunity to re-imagine education post-pandemic? Or will the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?
I don’t see this as a pessimistic take. It’s imagining the future and understanding the past that enables us to take off on journeys where the exact destination is unknown. When getting ready to climb a mountain, adventurers don’t just hope that the path they envision does not lead to an impassible ledge; they don’t rely on the hope that the weather will hold. They try to imagine what might happen when they turn a corner or reach a new level, and they get prepared. When the unexpected happens, when the conditions predictably change in unpredictable ways, we need to be ready to respond and rise above.
As my colleagues Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg and I argue in our new book, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict, education systems all around the world find themselves in this situation today. Now more than ever, it’s clear that we do not know exactly what lies around the corner, and we cannot determine, with certainty, what today’s students will need as adults or what roadblocks or supports societies will put in place for helping them to get there. But we can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.
We can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.
In my commentary in the Journal of Educational Change, I explore what it will take to support real changes in schools post-pandemic by exploring three questions:
Part 1: Why don’t schools change?
Part 2: How (and why) did schools change during the pandemic?
Part 3: How can schools change post-pandemic?
My responses to those questions build on several key principles derived from my work in and studies of a variety of efforts to create more powerful learning experiences in both developed and developing contexts:
First, new possibilities for schooling are most likely to take off when their goals, capacity demands, and values fit the common needs, existing capabilities, and prevailing conditions in the schools and communities where they’re supposed to work.
Second, this first principle leads to a corollary that seems particularly problematic for those who want to reimagine schooling altogether: the more radical our visions are for education and the more they diverge from conventional practice, the less likely they are to take hold on a large scale. However, that does not mean that it is impossible to pursue the new visions for education that Zhao and Waterston and others imagine. It means that the demands and pressures of conventional schooling make it easier to bring those visions to life in particular circumstances and contexts – ecological “niches” in a sense – rather than across entire school systems.
Third, this tension between the nature and extent of reform efforts, however, yields a further principle that opens up another avenue for change: There are places – “niches of possibility” – where the conditions are more amenable for transforming education. That does not mean that we have to accept every aspect of the conditions or ignore those that are deeply problematic. But we have to figure out how to challenge and work with and around the conditions in order to change them.
Schools will be transformed, over time, with changes in the conditions and the construction of the infrastructure for more powerful learning.
From this perspective, the specific vision for learning remains important, but that vision has to be accompanied by the recognition that it is not the vision itself that will change schools; schools will be transformed, over time, with changes in the conditions and the construction of the infrastructure for more powerful learning. Rather than aiming to develop a program and scale it across contexts, the focus shifts to the student level and to making sure that all students, particularly those left out and systematically disadvantaged by conventional schooling, encounter more and more opportunities inside and outside schools to engage in powerful learning experiences. Those experiences create new emergent possibilities for education that build directly on the specific conditions in which students live and learn every day.
The school closures and related educational adaptions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic led to many calls for “re-imagining education,” but which changes in schools actually can be made right now? Which ones will be made in the future? To address these questions, IEN is launching a new series to track both what changes in schools and what does not in order to reveal the conditions and constraints that have to be addressed to transform education over the long term. The series is part of a long-term project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts. The series pursue issues my co-authors, Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg, and I raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021). The first post in the series comes from Larry Cuban, co-author with David Tyack of Tinkering Toward Utopia(Harvard University Press, 1995), who highlights how calls for ambitious educational reform already may be “downsized” as the realities of returning to school get closer — Thomas Hatch
The silence is deafening. Perhaps other observers have noted calls for major school reforms, I have not. The pandemic’s closure of public schools in March 2020 and the partial re-opening of schools in fall 2020 and full return to face-to-face instruction in winter 2021 have grabbed mainstream and social media attention. Especially for the rapid expansion of remote instruction and the Zoom marathon that all of us are running.
No reform agenda, however, have I seen for bettering the nation’s public schools. I have yet to detect any groundswell for altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. There is much reform talk, of course:
Consider the words from a recent report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights of the disparate effects of the pandemic on white and minority students:
[W]e have a rare moment as a country to take stock and to begin the hard work of building our schools back better and stronger—with the resolve necessary to ensure that our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities but by equity and opportunity for all students.
Or the head of a major administrators’ professional organization:
“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”
Talk is one thing, however, action another. Reform-driven policies have notably been absent from most of the 13,000 school districts spread across 50 states and territories during and after the pandemic, particularly when it comes to repairing inequities prior to and during the Covid-19 crisis.
Consider state and national testing. During the pandemic, the then U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) until 2022. The current administration has called for standardized tests to be administered in the fall of 2021.
Apart from temporary suspension of nation and state tests, I have yet to hear of or read about any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated. Progressive educators and their allies have surely called for such changes before, during, and after the pandemic’s closing of schools, but beyond exhortations, I have not noted an emerging coalition of school reformers at either the state and federal levels not only endorsing but also funding such efforts.
In fact, as Republicans have taken over most state legislatures–they now control 62 percent of them–, the appetite for funding schools and igniting school reform have shrunk considerably. Although conservative state legislators have called for more teaching of patriotism and less teaching about race, keeping schools as they are remains strong.
Progressive rhetoric for reducing inequalities in funding districts, ending disproportionate assignment of inexperienced teachers to high poverty, largely minority schools, and increasing “ambitious” teaching remains high in mainstream and social media but has yet to lead to substantial adoption of such policies, and most important their implementation in schools and classrooms.
Of course, lack of concrete reform-driven policies and their implementation does not mean that reforms begun prior to the pandemic and then put on hold have disappeared. Those reforms seeking the expansion of remote instruction have gained ground with the sudden switch from face-to-face to screens in March 2020. While surely distance learning now has a secure niche in a school district’s kit-bag of “solutions” to emergency closures, becoming more than an option for parents to choose is, well, doubtful (see here and here).
Remote instruction, then, is, by default, the coercive reform du jour. Yet frequent reports of test score decline and loss of academic skills especially among minority and poor students during the pandemic have yet to push the “pause” button on distance instruction as a choice for parents to have should they reject face-to-face instruction in school classrooms (see here and here).
With the spread of remote instruction as a school reform, what has thus far emerged from the pandemic emergency are not big-ticket, comprehensive overhaul of public schools aimed at reducing inequities among American children and youth but a shrunken version of what the past 18 months have offered.
And that is why I titled this post: Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic.
This week, the Lead the Change (LtC) interview features a conversation with Chad R. Lochmiller, an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Indiana University Bloomington. His research examines issues related to educational leadership, with a particular focus on instructional leadership, continuous improvement, and strategic resource allocation. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.
The Lead the Change series highlights promising research and practice and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change to spark conversation and collaboration. The LtC series is a product of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association; Jennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator
Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme was Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions.For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Chad Lochmiller: I think education scholars, particularly those who study educational change, have a moral obligation to use their research to identify and disrupt perpetual cycles of oppression, inequity, and injustice in educational organizations and practices. This obligation applies regardless of what we study or the methods we use. This isn’t always comfortable work for folks who look like me, a white, male academic, and it requires a conscious choice to focus on these issues. I’ll also be unequivocal in stating that, because of my identity, I have disproportionately benefitted from the inequitable structure of our society, its educational institutions, and our workplaces. I have benefitted because folks who look like me set up the system to reward similarity and disparage difference. This isn’t right. In our increasingly diverse society, it’s fundamentally wrong when scholars turn a blind eye toward the very system that perpetuates these cycles of inequity and has privileged their own academic rise.
This is true of public elementary and secondary schools in the United States, as well. I often recall the words of Ron Edmonds (1979), whose landmark work on schooling for students from low-income backgrounds prompted much of the debate about what constitutes an effective (and equitable) school. In his seminal work, he noted that “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us” and that “Whether or not we do it must fully depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far” (p. 23). Focusing on equity and orienting our scholarship toward issues that perpetuate injustice is a choice. It’s the choice for scholars, for journal reviewers and editors, for tenure reviewers, for hiring committees, and for institutions of higher education. It’s on all of us to take on these issues, but especially those of us who have benefitted disproportionately.
As Ron Edmunds said: “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us” and “Whether or not we do it must fully depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far”
Now, as I write this, I have to admit that I have not done enough to address equity issues in my own scholarship nor taken enough actions to promote equity through my research. It’s a weakness in my research and I own that weakness because of the choices that I made. It’s also something that I am working to address by choosing to situate my work with a stronger equity/justice frame. For instance, in work that I am starting on school district strategic planning, I am looking specifically at the ways districts frame equity issues as part of their overall strategy for organizational improvement. Coviello and DeMatthews (2021) just published a piece on the community-level engagement around district equity issues. I want to understand how districts prioritize equity as a strategic improvement goal and follow-up with these commitments through differential investments for historically under-served students. In other words, do they put their money where their mouth is when they say they’re investing in equity? There are clearly some districts who do. But there are also many who treat these issues like a politically convenient talking point that receives no sustained attention in their practice.
Finally, as an instructor, I also try to address these issues more focally in my classes. I teach Indiana University Bloomington’s school improvement course for pre-service administrators and have introduced research that addresses issues of culturally responsive school leadership, disproportionality, and other issues that are appropriately considered in broader conversations about district and school improvement. I’ve asked students to read Anjalé Welton’s (2013) work, “Even More Racially Isolated than Before: Problematizing the Vision for ‘Diversity’ in a Racially Mixed High School.” I use this piece to help my students see diversity as a strength from which to build their improvement efforts. This piece, along with others like it, has created some really impactful conversations in my courses. I’ve found that students are increasingly speaking about their commitment to take up difficult conversations in their schools, challenge issues related to racial diversity that confront their schools, and ultimately make the choice (as urged by Edmonds) that schools will serve all of their students.
LtC: Given some of your work focused on how new teacher evaluation policies shape principal practice and the types and scope of supports needed for them to effectively implement such policies, what are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
CB: The adoption of new teacher evaluation policies throughout the Obama administration was the classic example of a well-intentioned policy that went terribly wrong. State policymakers who adopted the policies failed to consider the real-world impact of the policy on districts and schools. In this case, policymakers incorrectly assumed that leaders within system had the capacity to implement new evaluation practices without significantly increasing resources, providing adequate professional learning supports, or building new infrastructure to help manage data. Districts incorrectly assumed that principals had the capacity to manage new evaluation requirements without fundamentally reconsidering who should be involved in or responsible for the evaluation process. What became clear as this initiative wore on was that school leaders could handle ‘quick’ evaluations with relative ease but lacked the capacity to handle the required ‘comprehensive’ evaluations that were used with early career classroom teachers and a sample of teachers selected for review each year. As the number of teachers who required comprehensive evaluations increased, the evaluative burden simply grew too much for principals to handle. In sum, the system basically collapsed under its own weight (Lochmiller & Mancinelli, 2019).
If we step back and think about this as a broader policy issue, there are three major implications that we need to consider: First, education policy tends to be heavy on prescription, but light on incentives for change. Policymakers tend to state what will be required of educators with the hope that this is enough. They rarely offer the same kind of detail when specifying how educators will be supported, which we know is vital for the success of any change initiative. Policymakers, including district leaders, clearly need to think more holistically. They need to consider what systems will need to be built and/or which existing systems might need to be leveraged. Instead of introducing wholesale changes in education practice, as they attempted to in the case of evaluation, it behooves them to make more modest changes that are more strategically focused. For example, some of the work done by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the Building Teacher Effectiveness Network (BTEN) is an excellent example of districts working collaboratively to make progressive enhancements in their practice.
“Education policy tends to be heavy on prescription but light on incentives for change.”
Second, when policy aims to address practice, we need to consider whether practitioners have the capacity to accept new responsibilities. When educators don’t have the capacity to accept a new responsibility, I think it creates a policy selection phenomenon that is detrimental to policy implementation and organizational change. Prior research has described this as ‘street-level bureaucracy’ (Weatherly & Lipsky, 1977), a phenomenon that characterizes how frontline policy implementers tend to make sense of policy requirements in ways that fit their local context. In my view, policy selection relates to how educators strategically ignore policies that pose too significant a burden for them to adopt in their practice. I think it relates to Down’s (1957) notion of policy ignorance, which speaks to the costs of educating oneself about a policy relative to the potential benefits that one might derive from doing so. Educators tend to ignore (or loosely implement) policies that they think will not contribute to improved practices or outcomes. This reflects their own understanding about what constitutes good practice, and it ultimately contributes to unevenness in the implementation of policies. I think this exacerbates some of the difficulties achieving coherence in the education system, which are still not well understood.
Finally, given the increasing need to capture, analyze, and report information in education, policymakers need to consider the information infrastructure that policy changes may require. As I learned by studying evaluation policy, absent consideration of the information infrastructure, we end up with Google Spreadsheets because many classroom teachers use technology that is familiar to them or already embedded within their practice. This makes understanding the effect of a policy more difficult and presents challenges to learn how to improve the policy over time. It also misses an important recognition – technology tools can be useful in guiding educator practice. Thus, if we want to change fundamental practices, it behooves policymakers to consider how technology can be used to streamline what information is deemed important and thus sensitize what practices educators attend to.
LtC: In some of your recent work, you find that content-specific leadership practices are important not only for instructional improvement in science and math but also as a means of enhancing distributed or shared leadership practices. Given your findings, what do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?
CB: My interest in content-specific leadership (Lochmiller, 2015; 2016) started because I saw pre-service administrators struggling to evaluate classroom teachers in content areas with which they had no previous experience. I found that pre-service principals were especially hesitant to evaluate teachers in mathematics and science because they perceived these subjects were too complex to understand. Through my research, I’ve seen that principals often avoid these subjects by delegating supervisory responsibility to other members of their administrative teams or by offering generic feedback that attends to classroom conditions but does not really promote reflection that could contribute to changes in instructional practice. My work in this area seeks to identify tools, strategies, and other supports that help administrators engage in more productive supervisory conversations and/or to help them reconceptualize the leadership function in their schools to promote more attentive supervision in mathematics and science. This includes advocating to district leaders and policymakers to allow non-administrators to participate in peer evaluation as well as creating coaching structures in buildings that provide greater support to teachers in these subject areas. Certainly, this work is also motivated because of the vast inequities that we see in access to high-quality mathematics and science instruction as well as the differential outcomes that have been reported in mathematics and science for low-income students, students of color, students who are learning the English language, and students with disabilities. So, to my earlier point, this is one area of my work where I’ve been really intentional about making connections between my research and the (in)equities in schools.
“Educators need tools. They need models. They need processes that help them identify what changes need to be made and how these changes look once they are implemented.”
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
CB: My basic belief is that educators need tools. They need models. They need processes that help them identify what changes need to be made and how these changes look once they are implemented. One of the reasons that I’ve been so interested in improvement science (and Networked Improvement Communities) is that this model for improvement puts a great deal of power in the hands of educators to envision new practices, processes or structures that can fuel long-sought transformation. Improvement science is a form of disciplined inquiry that seeks to improve educational practices through the systematic application of small-scale tests of change. Networked Improvement Communities serve as social learning structure to guide largescale improvement activities focused on a common aim. In truth, I’m less interested in these ideas as an academic exercise than as a tool to help schools experiment with practices in ways that could potentially contribute to something better. I also think that this work is timely because of what we’ve experienced in the past year with COVID-19. When you take away the schoolhouse, you end up with students, teachers, instruction, and social networks. That’s the essence of schooling. So, I think it’s beneficial to explore improvement activities that marry these foundational qualities with a disciplined improvement process.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
CB: I think we need to think about the field in two ways. In the short term, my sense is that we’re going to see a lot of research that describes the effects of COVID-19 on different practices in schools. This will likely point to COVID-19 as a significant disruption in educational organizations, an external force for change, a crisis that necessitated management by leaders and teachers, and insights about how schools used technology to facilitate rapid educational change given the uncertainty of the moment. I’d also hope to see some critical appraisals of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, students residing in rural communities, etc.
Once we get outside of this recovery period, I think the field is poised for some really exciting advances over the next several years. This period has taught us some important new ways of working, interacting, and organizing educational systems, including schools. These urge us to consider what schools and the school day look like, for whom this model works, and how this model might be amended to better serve students. I think this creates opportunities to raise important questions about inequities that the COVID era has made much more transparent. That’s where my excitement about the field comes from – we are living in a unique moment where we might be able to revisit our long-held conceptions of educational change so that they better reflect the diverse society that we live in. We might actually be able to make education systems work better for the students who attend them.
Coviello, J., & DeMatthews, D. E. (2021). Knowing your audience: Understanding urban superintendent’s process of framing equitable change. Journal of Educational Administration, online first. https://doi.org/10.1108/JEA-07-2020-0164
Down, A. (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.
Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational leadership, 37(1), 15-24.
Lochmiller, C. R. (2015). Exploring principal leadership for math and science. Journal of School Leadership, 25(1), 24-53.
Lochmiller, C. R. (2016). Examining administrators’ instructional feedback to high school math and science teachers. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(1), 75-109.
Lochmiller, C. R., & Mancinelli, J. L. (2019). Principals’ instructional leadership under statewide teacher evaluation reform. International Journal of Educational Management, 33(4), 629-643.
Weatherley, R., & Lipsky, M. (1977). Street-level bureaucrats and institutional innovation: Implementing special education reform. Harvard Educational Review, 47(2), 171–197.
Welton, A. (2013). Even more racially isolated than before: Problematizing the vision for “diversity” in a racially mixed high school. Teachers College Record, 115(11), 1-42.
Strong school leadership impacts student outcomes, and this relationship is more important during a crisis. School leadership training can be cost-effective if it is delivered using best practices. However, there are limited programs focused on working with school leaders in lower and middle income countries (LMICs). As a result, the evidence base on this issue is sparse relative to the central role that school leaders play in a school’s functioning.
My organization, Global School Leaders (GSL), aims to play a catalytic role in developing evidence on school leadership in LMICs. In order to do this, we have been scaling school leadership training programs while strengthening our monitoring, evaluation, and research systems to contribute to the larger ecosystem of learning on this issue. We have worked with over 3,500 school leaders, impacting approximately 920,000 students. Our primary countries of focus are India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Kenya. During COVID, we have expanded to work in Peru, the Philippines, Uganda and Nigeria.
Why survey school leaders?
In 2020, we conducted a thorough review of the evidence on school leadership in LMICs. One of the key questions that emerged from that review is: “What are the key leadership practices that impact student learning for students from marginalized backgrounds?”
In order to deepen our understanding of this question, we have developed a set of High-Leverage Leadership Actions (HLLA) that synthesizes key leadership practices identified by our review and our experience training school leaders. We then developed a consultative process with a group of 10 education leadership researchers, our Academic Advisory Council, whose work is rooted in LMICs, to further refine this list.
These focus areas are not intended to be a complete framework of practices for school leaders. Instead, they serve as actions that 1) impact student outcomes and teacher performance 2) are trainable 3) are relevant across contexts. The six High-Leverage Leadership Actions we have identified are:
Create a positive school culture that reflects high expectations
Build teacher skill through observation & feedback
Understand effective teaching practices
Set school goals, create plans, and monitor progress
Promote teacher leadership
Disrupt inequitable patterns
In order to understand the quality of school leader practice in HLLA areas and the amount of time school leaders give to HLLA areas, we developed a set of school leader, teacher, and student surveys.
We piloted this survey toward the end of 2020 with our partners from India, Kenya, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Each of our four partners identified one school leader training program that started in early 2020. From this group of 180 schools, we randomly selected 10 schools from each partner. From each selected school, we surveyed the school leader, 5 teachers, and 20 students in grades 5 or 8. Our sample was thus 40 school leaders, 200 teachers, and 200 students. We ended up collecting data from 34 School Leaders, 116 teachers, and 145 students. The biggest gap in data collection was that our India partner was unable to collect teacher or student data.
What did you learn from the survey?
Overall, three findings from the study stood out:
1. The belief that all students can learn, and that teachers are critical in this process, is not universal.
In our sample survey, we saw that the percentage of teachers who believe that “all students can learn” is lower than the percentage of school leaders who believe the same. While 74% of our school leaders believe that all students can learn regardless of familial background or educational experience, only 48% of teachers agree.
While 74% of our school leaders believe that all students can learn regardless of familial background or educational experience, only 48% of teachers agree.
2. School leaders are providing teachers with limited opportunities to grow professionally.
Less than 40% of teachers reported receiving monthly short observations of at least 5 minutes from their school leader. Further, only 12% of school leaders reported conducting monthly observations of 30 or more minutes. Less than 50% of teachers reported their school leaders doing monthly in-service activities related to improving teacher skills and only 16% of teachers stated that they had opportunities to learn from their colleagues.
Less than 50% of teachers reported their school leaders doing monthly in-service activities related to improving teacher skills
3. School leaders use little data for decision making.
In our sample, less than 20% of school leaders reported using learning data to make curriculum changes, and only around 25% reported using data to incentivize teachers. Even though student absenteeism was identified by both teachers and parents as the biggest hurdle to student learning in their schools, only 62% of school leaders reported tracking student attendance. While almost all the school leaders reported having a school improvement plan that included student learning targets, in a majority of cases, these are not updated or reviewed regularly.
Less than 20% of school leaders reported using learning data to make curriculum changes, and only around 25% reported using data to incentivize teachers
Moving forward, we plan to conduct yearly follow up with this group of schools to see how their practice changes over time. We also will continue to test and refine our understanding of key actions leaders need to perform to impact students and improve our ability to measure these actions. We believe that understanding the detailed actions and choices school leaders make can have a substantial and sustained impact over the quality of education students receive.
This week, IEN shares the first part of an interview with Abe Fernandez about what he’s learned through his work on community schools, community organizing and collective impact in New York City. Fernandez is Vice President for Collective Impact and Director, National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid. Children’s Aid is one of the oldest and largest nonprofits serving young people in New York City. Established in New York City over 165 years ago, Children’s Aid addresses all kinds of issues related to children and youth, including early childhood, schooling, and foster care. This interview follows up on an earlier post on the evolution of work on collective impact in New York City. Part 1 of the conversation begins with Fernandez sharing the story of his own educational experiences and continues with a description and reflections on Children’s Aid’s community schools approach and their work on issues like chronic absence. Next week, in Part 2, Fernandez discusses some of the key steps in creating community schools and goes on to talk about work on collective impact more broadly
IEN: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in Children’s Aid and started working on community schools and collective impact?
Abe Fernandez: My story is that I grew up in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. They came to this country hoping that education would be their ticket to prosperity, which I think is still a pretty typical story for many immigrants. I have a lot of belief in the system that we have all built together, although it is flawed. But there’s a real perception that it can lead to some real opportunities, and I have to say I was really lucky. I was lucky born to a family with parents who were really working hard – despite all the barriers around language and culture that they and other immigrants faced – to navigate through a pretty challenging system. I had the good fortune of going to an elementary school that had teachers who saw something in me and my twin brother, and they helped create pathways that allowed us to find opportunities in that school. And then I got really lucky in fifth grade, and I was introduced to a program called Prep for Prep. That’s a program which, as I look back on it now, is problematic in some ways (as detailed in a New Yorker article by a program alum). Essentially, the program creams really high performing kids out of the public school system and deposits them into private schools and the independent school system.
Despite the challenges around that approach, it created some real opportunity for me, and I ended up going to a very elite independent school in New York City, Riverdale Country Day School, and then on to Brown University. At Brown, I got involved in a program that’s still going on today, the Breakthrough Collaborative. It’s a program that has a dual mission of getting younger kids into competitive high schools and encouraging really smart high school and college students to get involved in teaching. They’ve had a pretty good track record, with large percentages of their college students choosing to do at least a year of teaching after doing that program.
The program started at my high school when I was there, and after I went to Brown I participated in the program, and I went back every summer to teach at Riverdale. When I graduated from Brown, there was actually an opening at Riverdale to run the program there, and they brought me in to run it. As a result, I had this incredible opportunity to jump into the nonprofit world at the same time that I was learning how to become a teacher. I realized as I was working at Riverdale that I was in an extraordinary environment to learn how to teach because we had tons of resources. I taught middle school math, and I had maybe 13 kids in the classroom, all incredibly motivated kids, with parents who were incredibly engaged, and it was just a great. What a great way to learn the craft of teaching! But I remember thinking at the time, there’s something wrong about this. How could it be that only a small selection of New York City children get this kind of experience? So after a number of years of running that program and teaching in that environment, I wanted to be closer to the communities and the kids where I grew up. That led me to join Union Settlement in East Harlem. There, I ran a number of programs that were based inside public housing, and we worked with kids as young as two all the way through 24 year olds. That was a real shift for me. I got to really understand some of the issues that I knew from my own background, butI got to know them more professionally and to see the systems that were responsible for some of the challenges that young people and families face. After working there for a few years, I realized that I missed being engaged in education. We were doing great work, but it focused more on hunger and other kinds of issues. I didn’t have the access to what was happening in school where these kids spent most of their time. I found myself wanting to bridge those two parts of my experience, and that’s why I took a job at Children’s Aid, where I’ve been for the last 16 years, working primarily on Community Schools and now collective impact.
IEN: Can you tell us about your work on community schools?
AF:Community schools bring together all kinds of resources that we think kids and families need. They address everything including early childhood education, school-based health, adult education, you name it. The idea is to bring all these partners and programs together in a really coherent way to meet the comprehensive needs of kids and families. Children’s Aid was involved in helping to develop and support community schools long before I got there in the early 1990s. Right away, we had a lot of people from other places who wanted to learn about the approach. They wanted to come kick the tires, talk to principals, talk to us. But we found that they would go back to their home communities and say “Okay, we’re totally inspired, but we’re totally confused. Now what do we do?” We wanted to meet that need and build the capacity to help teams of people to go back to their communities, get to know their local context, and figure out some next steps. That’s what we’ve doing for the last 25 years through our National Center. Over the past 20 years, we’ve worked on almost every major community schools initiative across the US.
IEN: How has your work on community schools developed and what have you learned in the process?
AF:Children’s Aid started their work on community schools in the 1990’s in Washington Heights, in Northern Manhattan, with about five or six schools. Those schools were part of a wave of new schools that were established in New York City, and these schools were actually brand new schools, with facilities designed and built with the idea that they would be community schools. We had the opportunity to think about where to put a school based health center, the community school director’s office, or a parents’ room.
When we expanded the work into the Bronx in the early 2000’s, we didn’t have that luxury. We had to turn existing schools into community schools. We found ourselves working with schools that were completely overcrowded, and we couldn’t just displace a classroom to put in a health center or something. Instead of creating new school buildings, we ended up creating a kind of “campus” of community schools. We worked with four or five schools in one area and in the middle of them we built a health center. Later we put social workers and then an early childhood center into the building.
Although this campus grew out of convenience and practicality, creating this partnership of four or five different schools gave us an opportunity to work in the community in a different way. In the process, we started working on a whole set of issues that we as Children’s Aid didn’t have enough expertise or capacity to really do anything about. Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school. We thought about issues like making sure all kids are healthy, all kids are ready for school, and all kids are graduating high school ready for college and career; and, if we’re developing a vision of supporting children from “cradle through college and career,” we can’t be the ones doing all the work ourselves. Instead, we took on this new role as a kind of “backbone” organization. We’re convening all the partners that work in a community to develop a common results framework with some shared goals and with some indicators that will tell us all how things are moving forward at the neighborhood level. Part of that backbone role also includes basic things like just making sure that the PowerPoint is up, the coffee is hot, and the notes are being taken the meetings, but, overall, the work is being done by the community. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past five or six years in the South Bronx, playing this facilitating role.
Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school
We’re not going to walk away from community schools or stop providing services, but this has what’s expanded into what’s now being called our collective impact approach. We’re getting many, many partners to work together, looking at the same data together; we’re all coming up with a shared vision for what, what could look different, and then collectively working toward that new vision. As we continue to develop this work, we’re also hoping that the City will pay attention and begin to devote its resources to collective impact, just as they did for community schools.
IEN: What were some of the challenges that you encountered as your work with community schools developed, and how did you address those challenges?
AF:The biggest challenge is that the mindset needs to change. Right now, people tend to think categorically about schools: we believe that school is where students receive curriculum and instruction. Even though this notion that schools can be more than that makes sense, it’s really hard for people to think beyond the current paradigm. I think that mindset manifests itself in different ways. Take attendance for example, which is something many community schools have focused on. In New York City, for all grades K through 12, about 25% of students are chronically absent, which means that they’ve missed about a month or more of school; and in the schools in the South Bronx where we’ve been working, we found that it’s closer to 40 or 50%. Why are these students absent? One is health. In fact, the South Bronx has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma anywhere in the world (a documentary, Asthma Alley, chronicles the issues in the South Bronx). If you have lots of asthma in your community, kids are going to be sick, and they’re not going to go to school. But that’s not the only issue. In some cases, kids have to stay home to care for their siblings; some high school students might have jobs or other responsibilities; some kids are homeless. What program solves all these problems? It doesn’t exist. There have to be a number of different partners working together, which is why looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools. People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.
Looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools. People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.
But schools are not built to think that way, and they often take a much narrower approach. Here in New York City, there is a mandate that every school must have an attendance team. If you listen to some of the conversations in those teams, it sounds like “Okay, who was absent this week? How many kids have hit the threshold for being chronically absent? Did we send the letter? Did we make the phone call?” They check the items off a list. It’s a compliance driven approach. That’s different from a problem-solving approach. In a problem-solving approach, we look at the data, and that can get you thinking about who’s sitting around the table because we need more voices to interpret the data. Once we understand what the issues are, then we have to think about who’s going to help us create a plan and implement the intervention? That requires other people to be involved. All of that requires that shift in mindset. It’s an approach that helps to get at the stories behind the numbers, to help schools understand what’s happening for students and their families, so they aren’t just “rubbernecking” and saying “Isn’t that terrible.” It puts schools in a position to do something about the issues their students are facing. It is a lot to ask schools beyond what’s already a very challenging set of responsibilities, but if you add more partners to the mix, we can begin to share those responsibilities. That shift in in attitude is critical, but frankly, not every school leader is interested in doing it that way. There are some leaders though, who see the challenges and want to open up their doors and bring other voices in; look at that information and collectively problem solve; and share in some of the responsibility for work on these issues together.
Another critical challenge is that there is nothing you can do without principal leadership. It’s the linchpin, but if there are problems with a principal, it can be really hard to replace them. We’ve seen how, in the same building, you can have two different leaders with completely different outcomes. The challenge for us as a capacity building organization is that we still have not figured out how to implant a vision inside of a principal just by showing them PowerPoints or giving them books. A lot comes down to conversation and building trust. The most effective tool we have is other principals who get it, so creating networks of learning among the principals has helped quite a bit. The good news is that in the very beginning, people just wanted to build one community school, and now we’re seeing people who want to build systems of community schools. One of the really nice features of that is that you can start building these networks.
A lot of times the communities that are drawn to doing this work, tend to have populations that have higher rates of poverty, higher rates of tons of issues, and the schools in those communities tend to have less experienced teachers and less experienced principals. We’re asking them to work on a very high level, and many of them just haven’t had the chance to develop their own skills as school leaders, let alone as community school leaders. It’s a hard sell for some. On the flip side, we’ve come across principals who said this has been my vision from the minute I walked into my first classroom. I didn’t know it had a name, but I’m so glad that I can now join this community of people who work in this way. We have to find ways to build this way of working and these opportunities earlier into the careers of teachers and principals.
IEN: Given these challenges, how do you get started? How do you figure out who to work with?
AF:When it comes to New York City, we have identified particular neighborhoods where the data tells us we need to do something right away. And those places have changed over the years. When Children’s Aid started this work, the work was on the northern parts of the Upper East Side, which today looks very different. It doesn’t really need community schools the way it once did. As a result, we moved the work into the Bronx, and we’ve been there for about 20 years. The work starts with thinking about what’s the community we want to work in? And then it’s finding those people who have a real desire to work differently; that bring a sense of curiosity and have a feeling that things really should be different; who know that they can be doing things with partners, but they might not know how to do that quite yet. It does help quite a bit to have some top down support. There are some communities around the country where there’s a really inspired superintendent, who’s been willing to think about how to create the environment for their principals to want to do this work. Other times we find it is a really strong community partner that has had a relationship with a school and has already built some trust, but maybe they’ve realized they’ve been doing programs in the school for decades and have not seen the outcomes that they wanted to see. They come knocking on our door wondering how to better integrate their work with the other work going on in schools.
IEN: You said you’ve transitioned a bit from focusing on working with one school at a time and are now thinking more about a “hub and spokes” model. How does that work?
AF: We’re still doing both really. We often say community schools is not a program. It’s a strategy. It’s made up of many different programs and depending on what the needs are in that community, they’re all going to look different. We also don’t say it’s a model because the actual mechanics of how you’re going to move forward really needs to be worked through locally. Figuring out what your needs are and how are you going to meet them is actually part of the work. You can’t just implement a list of steps someone gave you. There are some benchmarks and some tools we want to use, but you want to engage local stakeholders in that process.
In some communities, you might start with a school. For example, they might have a YMCA attached to the building with a pool and many things you might want. But it’s totally disconnected. In that case, we’re going to find ways to connect those two and bring other folks into that space. In another community, we might find a school with a clinic or hospital across the street, and then we’ll find ways to bring those people together. It really depends community by community.
More recently, we’ve also been thinking about economies of scale. For example, in New York City you have 10 schools all working in one neighborhood, and they might all figure out that many of their students have asthma. Instead of having 10 different conversations with 10 different principals you can try to create one conversation between these schools and two or three partners to meet those needs. That ends up being a much, much more efficient way to work. It’s more likely to attract a partner because you’re talking about a scale that actually makes sense for them and chances are it’s much more sustainable.
IEN: What has been happening in schools in South Africa since the pandemic began?
Brahm Fleisch: One of the standout characteristics of South African education is the extreme inequality. The pandemic has exacerbated it. Elite private and middle-class schools in the public sector (about 10-15%) rapidly moved online. And while there were concerns about the quality of teaching and learning taking place online, most middle-class children were able to return to some form of schooling routine. This was not the case for most working-class and rural children, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black. Given the high cost of data, and the limited digital infrastructure in schools serving the majority of children, the evidence suggests that most of these children had very little schooling in 2020. This has continued into 2021. Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling. The majority of schoolchildren have experienced substantial learning loss.
Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling.
IEN: What has worked?
BF: South Africa has a national curriculum, most often referred to as the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). The government strategy last year was to “streamline” the curriculum, that is, cut the number of topics or themes to be covered in each of the respective subjects, assuming that the curriculum content that was missed would be covered in later grades. The problems with the curriculum streamlining approach is that it assumes that children have acquired the core basic knowledge and skills. At least for the early grades, the evidence suggests that the proportion of children able to read fluently in either their home language and/or in English (the language of schooling for the majority from Grade 4 onward) has dropped dramatically. If majority of children haven’t learnt to read or lost the skill of reading, streamlining is not going to help. While there is clearly a serious problem with government strategy, two important developments need to be highlighted. First, the national education department facilitated the development of a dedicated TV channel to make lessons in the high-stakes subjects available for all secondary school learners. Unlike using the internet, which has serious financial limitations, nearly all parts of South Africa have access to public broadcasting and is a relatively low-cost way to reach poor and rural communities. Second, after the first major period of lockdown, the schools were required (by a court interdict) to provide school feeding even when the schools were formally closed. Without doubt, ensuring that children received a daily meal benefited the majority of South African children.
IEN: What has surprised you?
BF: No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community. Much of the work of university researchers had been focused on documenting the major inadequacies of schools. In particular, the research had focused on both the overall low levels of learning taking place and the gap between children at the top and bottom of the income distribution. What was never fully appreciated is that despite the major weaknesses of the school system, children and their parents really missed the routines, rhythms and rituals of schooling. And while some school types did emerge such as the pod schools (small private classes of between 5 and 10 children of different ages mostly working online in a common space), it is hard to say if the new model will endure beyond the pandemic. These ‘schools’ fitted somewhere between home schooling and small private schools. While pod schools emerged in an ad hoc fashion to address the needs of children and parents, given the choice most children and their parents appear to be shifting back to more traditional school models.
IEN: What have you learned?
BF: As suggested above, there have been two clear learnings from the pandemic. First, absence from face-to-face schooling for a prolonged period disproportionately negatively impacts poor and working-class children. Although schools tend to reproduce inequality, the absence of schooling in conventional school buildings accentuated this inequality. The second insight suggest the deep cultural resonance of the archaic 19th century institutional form. All the talk about 21st Century skills and personalized learning appeared to signal a potential revolution in how we organize education. If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model.
No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community…If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model.
IEN: What’s next — what are you working on now?
BF: In the Global South, in systems such as those of South Asia (and South Africa), the challenge is to shift focus from curriculum compliance towards teaching at the right level. For these education systems that placed an emphasis on the syllabus or schemes of work, rethinking what teachers do in classroom with children who may be years behind curriculum expectations is going to be very challenging. For example, middle school teachers are going to be forced to confront a growing majority of children who cannot read for meaning or do basic mathematics. Simply doing the same, or even a slimmed down version of the national curriculum is likely to make things worse rather than better. Real thinking needs to go into teaching basic skills further and further up the system.
Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide.
IEN: What’s your hope for the future?
BF: Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide. We need greater effort on how we can mobilize the resources of the state better, unleash the creative energy of teachers as an organized profession, excite parents and students in diverse communities towards the task of incremental but sustainable improvement of teaching and learning.
The School Improvement Strategy was put in place at a moment when the Chilean school system was going through a period of significant structural reforms to improve the quality and equity of public education. A basic principle of this reform effort was to produce a cultural change from competition to collaboration as a way to produce the necessary conditions for systemic improvement. The School Improvement Networks (SINs) were instrumental to making that change. The Networks were mandated by the Chilean Ministry of Education to bring together between 5 and 15 schools, each represented by their principal and curriculum coordinator, a representative of the municipal department of education, and one or two Ministry supervisors. Through LIDERES EDUCATIVOS, a Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, we were commissioned by the Ministry to produce a yearly monitoring report of networks across the country based on questionnaire data. In addition, in 2016 we did a qualitative study of 15 networks in different regions to deeply understand how networks had been formed and were initially developing.
This book was born out of the necessity to open a dialogue with scholars around the world investigating networking and collaboration. We have learned very much from US and Canadian as well as European scholars. In fact, the opportunity to publish our manuscript came from an invitation by Chris Brown at the University of Durham and Cindy Poortman at the University of Twente to write for a series on Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) they edit with Emerald. Also, we have collaborated in this book with Chris Chapman from the University of Glasgow who has been a key supporter and friend in our projects. Finally, we were driven by the conviction that we had something meaningful to contribute from the Global South regarding collaboration and networking. Although the book is focused in Chile, we are aware that the challenge of developing a culture of collaboration in a context of privatization, competition and isolation, resonates with many countries.
What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?
From our experience studying and working with networks, we realized that it is much more powerful to think about the challenge of improvement from a systemic perspective rather than an individual one. Networks facilitate developing such a systemic approach, but we were first hand witnesses of how difficult it was to enact such change in practice, especially in a competitive environment such as the Chilean one.
By pulling together the evidence from several studies about networking, we produced a clearer picture of what networking among schools looks like in practice. This picture shows us that there are three key elements that need to be in place to ensure the sustainability of networks:
Building professional capital among network actors which would allow them to increase their capacity for collective change and improvement
Developing network leadership capacities for leading upwards, leading laterally, and leading downwards, which mobilizes influence and power relations within and outside networks, which is crucial in a challenging context
Establishing an appropriate system infrastructure to support and legitimize changing cultural patterns beyond the remit of networks themselves.
What’s happened in these contexts since you wrote the book?
In October 2019, Chileans took to the streets demanding social reforms aimed at tackling inequality and changes to a constitution that dates back to the 1980s, during the dictatorship of general Augusto Pinochet. It has been four months of massive protests and harsh police repression, which have mobilized the country to hold political actors to account on several topics. Education has been a central issue in these past months, as social and economic inequality is reproduced and reinforced in our neoliberal-inspired school system. Teachers and school leaders have had to deal with the consequences of this social discontent in schools and, in some cases, networks have been a key support in helping them to decide how to approach the situation. School networks seems to be an appropriate path to continue supporting a cultural change.
Unfortunately, the current government had decided earlier in 2019 to partially withdraw support to the School Improvement Networks strategy, although they have not phased it out altogether. Ministry supervisors were redeployed to focus on providing support and intervention directly to underperforming schools. Nonetheless, in most cases, networks have continued their work as school leaders value the opportunities to share and exchange experiences among schools in the same geographical area. In addition, we have been invited to support several school networks project at district levels. The findings described in this book are also being used by those who are pushing forward strategies based on meaningful collaboration for school improvement.
What’s next — what are you working on or what do you hope will happen in these contexts?
The agreement between the Ministry of Education and the LIDERES EDUCATIVOS Center ended in December 2019 but a renewal application was submitted, and we are awaiting a response. In the meantime, everyone in our team has gone to work elsewhere although still linked to the issue of networking and collaboration for school improvement. For instance, Mauricio is now a researcher of the Center for Advanced Research in Education (CIAE), Institute of Education at Universidad de Chile, working on projects to develop and support school networks using Collaborative Inquiry, and working closely with districts on the systemic improvement of the territory. Álvaro has gone to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Universidad de O’Higgins and he is starting a three-year study about the support provided to underperforming schools in Chile, where interorganizational collaboration and learning play a key role. Luis Ahumada has returned to his position as Professor at the School of Psychology at PUCV, still involved in educational leadership. Also, we hope to continue our collaboration with Chris Chapman, Chris Brown, Cindy Poortman and many other scholars that we had the chance to know through the ICSEI PLN network and elsewhere.
What do you hope those working in other parts of the world will take away from your experiences?
Many educational systems have opted for the strategy of networking to support improvement not only for schools in difficulty but also entire systems. This movement builds on the empirical evidence showing how difficult it is for a school to improve on its own. Our book shows that in marketized school systems, such as the Chilean one, it is possible to overcome the logic of individual accountability, promoting collaboration and co-responsibility between all levels of the system. We hope that our book will inspire decision- and policy-makers to promote networking at different levels of the system and to create spaces where collective support and democratization allow for the development of a different bond among schools and the communities they serve.