Ackerman's team says conditions ripe for turnaround
They believe high-performing teams with community support can get the job done. Other struggling schools will be guided by the central office.
by Dale Mezzacappa
Philadelphia is a school district long plagued with race and class segregation, internal inequities, conflict with the teachers’ union, and a constant scramble for resources. It is also no stranger to dramatic reform efforts that were launched with great promise and ended, if not with a thud, then with a whimper.
This is partly because Philadelphia, under a succession of leaders, has also faced constant tension between two competing theories of change: on the one hand, giving schools more autonomy to figure out what is best for students and develop their own approaches; on the other, deciding from the top “what works” and ordering schools to do it.
The Renaissance Schools initiative embodies that contradiction.
This initiative proposes to “turn around” many of the District’s most poverty-stricken, lowest-performing schools, mostly by changing their management and most, if not all, of the teachers. The strategy promotes models touted by the Obama administration through its Race to the Top initiative, including converting schools to charters and turning them over to private managers.
The outsider will wonder, “Didn’t Philadelphia already turn over a bunch of its schools to private managers?” The answer is yes. In fact, seven of the 14 schools in the pool of possible Renaissance Schools had the experience of being handed to outside managers after the state takeover.
What’s different this time
But there are several key distinctions between what happened in 2002, when the state took over the Philadelphia system and ordered one of the nation’s largest experiments in privatization, and what Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s administration promises will happen now.
“This is dramatically different,” said Ben Rayer, who is the District’s point person for the school turnaround effort.
He and Ackerman cited three main reasons they think their reform will work:
- The District will be working with either internal people, like superstar principals, or external managers, like successful charter operators, who have “proven track records. We’re putting the best people in to do the work,” Rayer said.
- Extensive community involvement is planned in choosing the turnaround providers for the low-performing schools. “A key different fact is that the community will be involved in deciding their own fate, instead of someone else deciding without asking,” said Ackerman. “I think people are really feeling part of the solution.”
- The union is cooperating and not working at cross-purposes. “The union is on board, we’re partnering with them,” Ackerman said. The new contract gives the District the “tools” it needs to carry out the turnarounds, including provisions for teachers in the high-needs schools to work up to an extra hour a day, some Saturdays, and the month of July.
In addition, as a practical matter, the outside providers, whether charter operators or education management organizations, will work outside the District and the union contract, which was not true of the schools that started operating under a private provider in 2002.
Even with those different conditions in place today, there are still two fundamentally different theories underlying what makes school improve.
The “theory of action” approved by the School Reform Commission in January touts both “managed instruction” and “performance empowerment,” which describe very different approaches to school change.
“Managed instruction” stresses a comprehensive curriculum, professional development and student assessments based on that curriculum, and data-tracking of students so they can get the right services.
The goal of “performance empowerment” is to “empower education leaders and schools who have demonstrated their capacity to consistently obtain outstanding instructional outcomes for students.”
Managed instruction is the approach taken in Empowerment Schools, now more than 100 District schools that have consistently failed to make federal learning goals and have gotten extra resources.
Some of the schools on the Renaissance Eligible list will be managed by a team in the superintendent’s office, and Ackerman still prefers prescriptive approaches to full-blown autonomy and experimentation. In these schools that will become her special concern, called Promise Academies, “We’ll see expanding upon some of the strategies we know are working in Empowerment Schools,” she said. “In Promise Academies, we will not say, ‘Do whatever.’ We know what works, and we’ll put those things in place.”
Rayer said, in essence, that “managed instruction” is the first line of attack, followed by autonomy in case that doesn’t work – but only with the “right” people.
“We think that’s part of our theory of action. When schools struggle, the District doesn’t just throw its arms up. The District steps in and tries to support them,” Rayer said.
“But we’re saying in a case where Empowerment hasn’t worked in a school, something needs to happen to dramatically improve the performance of children at that school. Not just a little bit better, but a lot better. And that’s Renaissance.”