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Reformers, School Leaders Work Closely to Improve Schools

Sometimes an outside perspective is what is needed to jump-start change. Some districts are committing to reform through long-term partnerships with foundations and centers that provide consultants, money, and other resources. Included: An example of a district-foundation partnership.

As already-overworked administrators continue to try to improve student performance, more school leaders are looking beyond their in-house resources for new perspectives and strategies.

Many are turning to professional school reformers -- some in the form of not-for-profit foundations -- that provide funding, consulting, and networking opportunities for administrators to help them tackle issues they think are hindering overall student progress or the performance of subgroups.

But these efforts are not for administrators looking for quick-and-dirty fixes. The partnerships with foundations can last as long as ten years and involve a lot more than simply tinkering with a reading or math curriculum.

Research on school improvement shows that you need a long-term commitment for any possibility of substantial change, according to Andrew Lachman, executive director of the Connecticut Center for School Change.


Some foundations specifically target the achievement gap -- an issue with which many districts are grappling -- and focus more on urban schools. Others work with a broader mix of districts. In all cases, consultants make it clear to administrators that wide-spread, long-term changes in areas including curriculum, professional development, leadership, and community involvement are necessary for student achievement to improve.

We are committed to closing the achievement gap through leadership at the superintendent, principal, and teacher levels, said Lora Lyons, director of communications for the Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) at the University of Washington. The CEL works with urban, rural, and suburban school districts all over the U.S. We believe that the quality of instruction improves when leadership understands what powerful instruction is like. There is little traction if the change is not systemic.

There is little traction if the change is not systemic.

Scott Thompson, assistant executive director for the Panasonic Foundation, said his foundation has had partnerships with districts that have lasted as long as ten years, and currently Panasonic has full partnerships with eight districts. We want to break the links between race and poverty and educational outcomes by improving the academic and social success of all students, Thompson told Education World. System-level change is necessary to close the achievement gap.

Depending on the foundation, participating districts can receive consultant hours, cash, instructional resources, and access to networking with other administrators and educational experts. In the case of Panasonic, teams from participating districts come together twice a year to learn from each other.

Too often professional development is out of context, Lyons noted. We bring professional development to the district.

The Connecticut Center partners for five years with a district in several areas, including leadership development for superintendents, principals, and parents, Lachman told Education World. The center provides resources on public policy and personnel issues, such as information on hiring and retaining teachers. Our focus is that the district is the unit of change -- and the notion of a long-term partnership with the district helps improve student performance, he said.

There are lots of changes in schools, Lachman added. But not much improvement. We dont have lots of examples -- probably not even one -- of districts that bring students to the high international standards to which we aspire.


One district that was eager for a partnership was the Stamford (Connecticut) school system. Stamford is in its first year working with the Connecticut Center for School Change and the Panasonic Foundation, in what is expected to be a five-year partnership.

This is the first time staff members from the Connecticut Center and Panasonic Foundation are working together in a district.

There are lots of changes in schools. But not much improvement.

This is partially aimed at the achievement gap, but its also about providing excellence to all students, Stamfords superintendent, Dr. Joshua Starr, told Education World. We need to ensure that every child has access to quality instruction. We are looking at a systemic approach to instructional improvement. They [consultants] are helping us develop our own model for improved instruction.

Stamford has schools at both ends of the academic achievement spectrum and an ethnically-diverse population of 15,000 students. About 40 percent of the population is white, 8 percent Asian, 22 percent African-American, and 30 percent Latino, Dr. Starr said. About 16 percent are English-language-learners.

One of the challenges the district wants to address is the lack of a core curriculum, noted Dr. Starr. Every school does things its own way, he said. For systemic change, we are working with the teachers union, school board, and parents. We want to do this in a collaborative way.

The Connecticut Center and Panasonic have assigned two people to work with Stamford. A two-member team visits the district every month to talk with administrators. Stamfords superintendent also has the chance to meet monthly with other superintendents working with the Connecticut Center to exchange ideas.

Its a more intensive relationship than with other districts, Lachman said. Part of the purpose is to see if we change the model for the rest of the state. Evaluators also are monitoring the work to assess the success of the partnership between the agencies.

The agencies provide Stamford with eight days a month of technical assistance. Consultants work with the school board, the assistant superintendent, and the teachers union.

This holds a lot of promise, Dr. Starr said. We are building a model together. They have to learn to work with each other and with us.


As part of the partnership with a district, foundation members often start by reviewing statistics and asking questions. When the Connecticut Center works with a district, Lachman said, consultants investigate whether the administrative team is collecting data, following up on data, and reviewing whether there was improvement. We collect data and try to understand what the barriers are, and try to develop a plan to move the needle forward on student achievement, he told Education World.

We do a lot of organizational development work, Lachman continued. If we make the organization more effective, it will lead to student improvement. Its the same kind of approach, the same kind of planning and development [no matter what is being addressed] -- we develop systems and procedures that could improve math, literacy, or anything else.

The Panasonic Foundation, which has 14 senior consultants, has a similar approach. Two-member consultant teams visit districts monthly, hold meetings, and build frameworks, Thompson said.

We need to ensure that every child has access to quality instruction. We are looking at a systemic approach to instructional improvement.

Many times this is a starting point -- they look at data, admit what they dont know, and then learn what need to know to be successful, Lyons said of the administrators with whom her group works.

We tend to focus on literacy and math, noted Lyons, a former principal. People are looking for a quick fix -- they are looking for one formula that works. But it does take leadership at all levels. In order to have work that is sustainable, you need to have people understand what powerful instruction looks like -- and determine if they are seeing a difference in student performance.

The Connecticut Center also runs a leadership program for superintendents in the state. Twenty-six superintendents meet once a month at a school, and a superintendent lists an issue he or she wants the group to investigate in that school -- such as organization, data use, how schools use multiple adults in classrooms, coaching, or literacy specialists.

What the superintendents think will improve teaching and practice determines the next step, Lachman said. Two superintendents from the group re-visit the school three months later to see what was implemented based on the superintendents feedback and whether the actions are proving effective.


School districts develop partnerships with foundations in a number of different ways. The Connecticut Center has a competitive process and requires administrators to apply. The Panasonic Foundation connects with districts fairly informally by word of mouth, said Thompson. Districts have to have at least 7,000 students and about 30 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price meals.

School leaders often learn about the Center for Educational Leadership through attending seminars or workshops the center offers. The center does charge districts for its services, but seeks grants to help defray the costs.

Partnerships vary, Lyons said. Some are five years -- every year, districts make decisions about whether or not they can continue and if the work is making a difference.

Long-term relationships also allow consultants to see how much schools and staff members have changed. Principals may not have spent much time in classes before [they started working with CEL], she said. After they start working with us, they spend more time in classes and talking to teachers.

With administrators under so much pressure to produce improved results, the demand for reform consultants is likely to increase, some said. I think were heading in the direction of districts looking for reform help and organizations providing assistance directly, Thompson noted.

For Stamford, outside help seemed the best way to go, said Dr. Starr. Without this partnership, we would have sought another outside consultant, he continued. We always need to be learning -- you need context, too, but you need someone with objectivity and outside experience to help you with that learning.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 12/10/2007
Last updated 01/18/2010