Sharing the Heavy Lift on School Improvement

This post originally appeared in The Quick and the Ed.

Chris CarusoThe federal government and many school districts are placing major bets on more learning time as an enabler of student progress. More than 90% of federal School Improvement Grants recipients chose it as a school improvement strategy, Dara Rose of  The Wallace Foundation noted yesterday at a New Orleans forum on partnerships for school reform, hosted by the Partnership for Youth Development and TASC.

But how many of those schools have partners, such as arts and youth development organizations, who can help teachers and principals use more time effectively? Echoing what Education Sector’s Elena Silva found in her research, Ms. Rose said of the SIG grantees that “the norm really is that schools are trying to shave off a few minutes of recess and lunch to increase instruction.”

We know schools can’t broaden learning and opportunity alone, a theme echoed at the forum by Korbin Johnson, the founding principal of KIPP Central Primary School in New Orleans. He said he welcomes partners who bring great curriculum in arts and other disciplines because his teachers are maxed out on core academics. “There’s a lot of heavy lifting going on in teaching math and science and social studies,” he said, “so it’s a great benefit.”

Of course it’s only a benefit if partners have strong working relationships and shared goals for kids. Mr. Johnson wants a partner who buys into the existing school culture and expectations. Community organizations want to work with principals and teachers who are willing to share leadership, student data, school resources and accountability. It takes time and planning to build out the learning days offered by these three schools.

“Most of our mistakes come from expecting cultures to change too quickly” as schools and partners come together, Lucy Friedman said in describing TASC’s experience with ExpandED Schools. The trick is to balance the understanding that “change (only) happens at the speed of trust” with a healthy sense of constructive impatience.

Speakers shared strategies on how we can collectively do better at sharing accountability for student success across whole communities and cities – like the work of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, and the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

Speaking for the campaign, Ron Fairchild decried conversations about accountability that simply blame schools. While he’s encouraged to see organizations in many cities claim their share of responsibility for kids reading, he said, “One of my big concerns now is how do we see good intentions and nice plans translate into success?”

An answer came later from Dana Peterson, Deputy Superintendent for Internal Affairs in the Recovery School District, who said effective partnerships look different from school to school and community to community. What’s important, he said, is for educators to build the authentic relationships with neighbors that “dispel the notion that there is no space for communities to be involved” in school reinvention.