An Eduwonk Interview — Hedrick Smith

If you haven’t seen Hedrick Smith’s Making Schools Work you can still find it being rerun on PBS stations and you can order the DVD and learn more at this website. It’s well worth watching as it focuses on scalable solutions that are benefiting youngsters today and it gives some props to Gene Bottoms, which alone makes it worth watching. In addition MSW examines what some big urban districts are doing. Overall it shows that while the challenges are great, excellence is achievable. All good. But isn’t a parallel goal also creating a system that while heeding the lessons of MSW also is more dynamic and accommodating of great ideas even if they are not scalable but can make a difference in for kids in one place? Those policies are not great television but are an important complement to the issues that Smith raises.

Once Education Sector is up and running you’ll get high production value interviews with interesting people doing various things in education from the schools to the policy community. In the meantime, here’s an interview (with standard Eduwonk production values) with Hedrick Smith about this project and his views for you to curl up by the fire and read this weekend.

Eduwonk — You’ve been involved in education in the past and are well known for that work, but what prompted you revisit the issue in such depth now?

Smith — We were motivated primarily by the hunt for effective educational reform at a large scale, out of concern that individual examples of success in one school here or there, or a cluster of schools, will not move enough students upward. We have 90,000 schools. We cannot compete globally, reforming them one by one. We have to relax our obsession with local control to admit that we can learn from people elsewhere – in other countries and in other parts of our own country. We need to open up to good ideas. We have to find models that can be replicated in hundreds if not thousands of schools and find leaders and strategies that can reform entire school districts. So this was a different kind of reporting for us. It worked. The seven examples we found cover two million students – almost all of them in the hardest educational terrain, among low-performing schools and low-performing students, most of whom come from high poverty neighborhoods.

EW — In putting together Making Schools Work and having that vantage point on American education, what was the most encouraging aspect for you? What was the most depressing?

Smith — The most encouraging aspect was finding multiple strategies that are succeeding in lifting the academic performance of the students that many people have given up on – poor inner city or rural kids, many of whom are struggling with English and don’t get much educational support at home. It was encouraging to find that the job can be done if the adults will accept responsibility, roll up their sleeves, commit themselves to the proposition that all students can learn — all students — and then setting out systematically to improve teaching and invest the resources to get the job done.

The most discouraging aspect was finding that adults spent much of their time squabbling among each other, clinging to their own pet schemes and rejecting all others (when there is evidence that various different strategies work) – and that the adult arguments, battles, school board elections etc, often defeat effective reform. Adult impatience and intolerance are serious obstacles to educating children. Many school board elections are monumental distractions from the job of educating. Most school superintendents get run out of office in fewer than three years. That is not enough time to carry out an effective reform program, and many times the soap-box populist voices on school reform know too little about what works across the country to be so certain they know all the answers. In other words, the most discouraging thing to discover repeatedly was that adult politics often interfere with effective education.

EW What should a casual observer take away from Making Schools Work? Are our educational challenges mostly political in nature, generating the political will to tackle these problems, or are there knowledge gaps that must be addressed?

Smith — The casual observer or the interested parent or citizen should take away four or five big ideas:

We can educate all kids if we believe that it must be done, can be done, and we are willing to invest the time, effort and money to do the job and stop making excuses.

We must invest much more in helping teachers to improve the quality of their work every year, every month, and that means insuring that teachers get continuous training, mentoring, coaching, evaluating, group sessions with peers and colleagues, open discussions with principals, and we need to give teachers the respect and incentives so that they want to improve. That means first of all making sure that the principal is the principle teacher, with quality teaching as her priority rather than managing the building, the buses and the books.

We need to adopt some consistent and proven strategies and then apply them for long enough (6-10 years) to get the job done, and do constant evaluation to find out where and how the job is being done well, and if it is not, making mid-course corrections.

We need to understand that most low-performing schools and low-performing students are located in poor neighborhoods and are not given the same resources equitably as the successful suburban schools in affluent communities. We have to give the low-performing schools the same chance that the better-performing schools have by equalizing the resource input, and primarily that means putting experienced, qualified and master teachers into the toughest schools instead of sticking those schools with new and inexperienced teachers who keep quitting out in a year or two. That’s a formula for failure that we need to fix.

We need to get the main stakeholders in a community on the same page, backing reforms and willing to stick with them for several years – educational administrators and school board members; teachers and teachers’ unions; parent organizations; community leaders especially business leaders. In communities where education works, most of those folks get together and put their shoulders behind the wheel.

What happens in the classroom is vital, but adult politics are also important.

EW — Critics point to examples of success like KIPP and say that they’re specialized and unique and have little to offer in the way of broader lessons for educators or policymakers. You looked at several models in Making Schools Work, in your view what makes them potentially more than just isolated islands of success?

Smith — The numbers. They are not isolated islands of success. The elementary reading program Success for All is in 1,300 schools nationwide affecting 650,000 students. It has proven that it can be replicated in all kinds of different situations, regions, states, cities, and rural communities. High Schools That Work is in 1,000 high schools from Florida to Oklahoma, up to Illinois, New York City and states in between. 36 states in all. Affecting 800,000 students. It has been and is being widely replicated and has a strong and expanding track record. The Comer process is in about 500 schools affecting more than 200,000 students. Probably 60% of its schools have a track record for improving student performance significantly, and the others are mixed. Even KIPP is in 38 schools, now moving to 48 schools. It is true that the student body and the parents of KIPP schools are self-selecting. They have to apply. They have to commit to follow the KIPP rules and regulations. But these are schools open to all, free of charge, and they are clearly reaching about 20,000 students very effectively. That’s a sizeable chunk. Yes, it would be ideal if they dealt with 100% of students, but let’s not nitpick. Let’s learn from what they are doing effectively. The Charlotte school system has 150,000 students, many of them from high poverty neighborhoods, and they have an impressive track record of steadily lifting student performance over the past decade. Tony Alvarado’s reform strategy in New York City lifted the performance of roughly 22,000 students, in both high poverty and high affluence areas. The whole district moved up. And even with a lot of resistance in San Diego, his reforms had an impact on elementary and middle school performance there.

There are others in America who are doing well at scale, too. But these examples are striking in their track record and their reach.

EW — How do you see No Child Left Behind fitting into the story you told in Making Schools Work, does it help or hinder the reforms you presented?

Smith — All the examples of effective educational reform that we showed in our program pre-dated No Child Left Behind. Our examples took root in the early and late 1990s, so that the 2002 legislation did not affect their results. In fact, it was the other way around. It was the successful track record of North Carolina, and cities such as Charlotte, that helped inspire the goals set out in the No Child Left Behind legislation.

The reformers with whom we talked generally praised the goals of No Child Left Behind – the effort to establish standards and yardsticks by which to measure and evaluate progress, and especially the requirement that schools and school districts measure and report on their performance among many disaggregated groups of students (white, Hispanic, African American, Asian American, affluent, low socio-economic status, etc). What some found troublesome was the rather rigid application of rules and requirements in the legislation and, above all, the fact that this program is an under-funded federal mandate – that is, the Congress and the Administration require certain actions by states and school districts that cost extra money but the federal government does not provide sufficient funds to cover those added costs.

But here we are again, the adults arguing over political and financial questions rather than focusing our primary attention on the kids – what can we do to raise student performance? When American students rank 18th in reading and 28th in math among 30 nations, in the OECD tests last spring, we should all be focused first on how we can serve our children best and then work out the necessary adult compromises to move students upward.

Let’s go back to that list of key points to remember – All students can learn, We can teach them, we have to work at upgrading the quality of teaching and give teachers support, we need to adopt and stick with proven strategies, we need to reallocate resources to where they are most needed. Let’s get cracking!

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