Restructure or Fail (Part 2)

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.

Districts Have One More Chance to Take Bolder Action and Share Success With the Best Charters

The Strategy: Community Clusters with Accountable Units

Bold district superintendents, with state and federal support, can apply these lessons to recruit a team of talented and experienced school leaders and bring inside the district the innovative and performance-based culture the best charters have established outside the district.  And in doing so, they can provide the seamless preK-12 support students and families need.

Establish new small units inside districts responsible and accountable for a community cluster of schools, including a high school and its feeder schools.  We call these Lead Partner units.  In the charter world, they’re called charter management organizations.

Give that small unit of four to five staff control over the things that count: people, time, money and program, and make every outside partner or consultant in the school cluster a subcontractor to the unit. In return for this autonomy, hold the unit and its leadership accountable for results with a 3-to-5-year performance contract.

It’s the difference between blowing up the system and starting from scratch … or breaking up the system and rebuilding a smarter district from the school cluster level up.

This kind of boldness offers the best of both worlds. These “mini-districts” have all the benefits of charters, mainly operating flexibility and accountability. Plus all the benefits of an existing infrastructure. Why should school networks have to reinvent services such as procurement and enrollment, where the benefits of scale are obvious? It’s not surprising that the best school reform networks, like KIPP and AUSL, have figured this out.

First-generation, at least partial models for this strategy have been put into place in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

Klein came the closest to this approach in New York City with his empowerment zones, networks and partnership support organizations. But the school networks were too large and had no coherence or community connection.  The partner units – both inside and outside – were too “light touch” with no accountability for student results.

The next 10 years will be the proving ground for traditional districts. Failure will lead to continued decline and thousands of students still trapped in dysfunctional schools.  It’s time more district superintendents and state education agencies learned from the first generation of district redesign, including their own mistakes.

In the process, we might give students and families the choice of good charters and good district schools, a portfolio of excellent school clusters that has been the “holy grail” for reformers for more than a decade.