Restructure or Fail: Urban Districts Have One More Chance to Compete With Charters

Mass Insight president and founder Bill Guenther responds to this week’s series from Mike Contompasis, former Boston Public Schools superintendent, on how Boston’s district reform should have been bolder.

Part 1

Joel Klein in New York City. Michael Barber in Great Britain. Mike Contompasis in Boston. Three very successful leaders of large school systems. And looking back in different ways, they all say the same thing. “We should have been bolder.”

Time and again, accomplished school leaders have underestimated the ability of an ingrained, risk-averse culture to resist reform, sometimes aggressively (think the UTLA in Los Angeles), often passively (“this too shall pass”).  A lot more boldness is needed – particularly in re-thinking the structure and devolving accountability in urban districts.  And unions need to be part of this boldness or they will share the responsibility with management for failure.

But what kind of bold action makes sense?

Public charter school proponents argue the old system can’t be changed, that we should abandon that ship – it’s easier to build a new culture in a new organization.

They have a point.

However, the practical and moral problem with the charter-only, “abandon ship” strategy is that after 15 years, there are too few successful charters and not enough high quality preK-12 charters to provide a viable alternative to district schools.

So for the foreseeable future, a bold and successful district alternative to the best charters is an equity issue for kids, not just an argument among adults.

To shape that district alternative means learning from charters and starting with three big assumptions that lead to the same strategy.

Assumption #1:  The Central Office Is Broken – and Can’t Be Fixed in its Current Form

Charter proponents are right about one part of the old system:  the central office.  All the evidence suggests the mid-level bureaucratic culture in urban district central offices is impervious to all the money spent to “improve” it. Starting with HR – arguably the most important function and usually the weakest department in the district.

Successful principals know this well.  Even under Joel Klein in New York and Tom Payzant and Mike Contompasis in Boston, the best principals were renegades.  They broke every rule and found their way around the central office, including recruiting their own talent.

Ask the question: How many high-performing central offices can we point to in the last 10 years? Then make it really tough: How many of these exceptions have sustained performance over two superintendents?  Long Beach and Hillsborough come to mind.  Anywhere else?

In the traditional district structure, it’s difficult below the superintendent and above the school level to locate anyone or any unit that lives or dies based on accountability for student achievement.

It’s time we stopped tinkering with the central office and looked at how to decentralize those functions closer to schools, with accountability for performance.  Then allow much of the centralized office and its dysfunctional compliance culture to wither away.

Assumption #2:  Urban Students Need a Choice of PreK-12 Community  Clusters

It’s widely accepted that kids from poorer communities need an integrated preK-12 academic system – including a wraparound of community support.

Given the almost total failure to provide this model system for urban students anywhere, what’s the likelihood in the next 10 years that we’ll suddenly see whole urban districts transformed into this model?

So if we can’t change the whole system at once, why not start with “proof points” for fully integrated preK-12 community clusters of schools?   Devolution to a cluster of schools, not to individual schools.

The best charters also have reached this conclusion as they move to a vertically integrated model.  Charter management organizations have proven that full school autonomy is another dogma.  Schools are too small, too weak and too fragmented to operate successfully by themselves and provide the seamless support urban students need, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Assumption #3:  New Units Can Create New Cultures

The public and private sectors have successfully used new organizational units established outside traditional cultures to break out of old systems.

In government, think of the most effective special purpose authorities. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, for example, was set up outside of traditional Massachusetts state government with its own flexibilities and a board of public and private sector trustees. Over 20 years, three innovative executive directors and their specially recruited senior staff oversaw the $5 billion clean-up of Boston Harbor, producing consistent leadership for one of the best-managed projects in the country.

In the private sector, think IBM in the early ‘80s when a new special unit was set up to design the original IBM PC – in Boca Raton, Florida, more than a thousand miles away from the old mainframe culture at the Armonk headquarters.

Tomorrow, The Strategy: Community Clusters with Accountable Units…