A Third Option

In our 2007 report The Turnaround Challenge, we wrote about adopting new visions in order to transform low-performing schools.  We pointed out:

 Turning around the ‘bottom five’ percent of schools is the crucible of education reform. They represent our greatest, clearest need — and therefore a great opportunity to bring about funda­mental change….If status quo think­ing continues to shield dysfunctions that afflict these schools, there can be little hope for truly substantial reform throughout the system.

 Last week, Rick Hess posted a piece where Neerav Kingsland (CEO of New Schools for New Orleans) and John Thompson (This Week in Education) defined their differences regarding their opinions on centralization of school districts.  About six months ago, Kingsland and Mass Insight Education CEO Bill Guenther exchanged emails debating a theory of relying solely on charter schools.   Bill argued that turnaround offers a “third way” for transformation—neither complete decentralization, nor total top-down operations.

The new piece on Hess’ blog focused on the misalignment between Kingsland and Thompson’s schools of thought—both argue for more autonomy for schools, but in very different ways. But one major issue is missing from this conversation: district or charter management organization systems.  Our theory from The Turnaround Challenge has grown into a new shared vision –a “Smart District.”  Until we focus on the structure, neither traditional districts nor charters will be able to solve the problems our schools face.  To use a teaser from an upcoming publication, why not turn to “Smart Districts”?

 A mini-district such as this offers the best of all worlds: the autonomy of decentralized charters, the scale and infrastructure of a larger system, and the k-12 coherence that suburban parents and students already have.

 School clustering, a key component of our turnaround theory, allows for schools to handle day-to-day classroom instruction, while an independent Lead Partner unit provides administrative and operational support to the schools in this cluster, focusing on such things as student wraparound services and building community engagement.  Meanwhile, the classic central office continues to monitor performance, setting standards for all clusters within the district, and serving as a go-between with state and federal agencies.  We believe this to be a promising opportunity to foster a newfound culture of excellence within schools.

So if Kingsland and Thompson believe in educator empowerment as the be-all, end-all of reform efforts, perhaps they ought to take at look at Smart Districts.