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The Outsourced District

Nashville joins a list of city districts that are looking outside for help. But how well do these alliances work?

By Amanda Fairbanks | September/October 2008
Schools, Inc.?<br />
Schools, Inc.?

Things haven’t been going well for Nashville’s Metro Public Schools. The 70,000-student district, which is sprawled out over the 503-square mile metropolitan county, has been plagued with underperforming schools, high dropout rates, and chronic teacher vacancies. Beginning last fall, the district entered corrective action under No Child Left Behind. For many, this was a source of alarm as well as a call for action—but action can be a tricky thing to negotiate.

“Some people worry about the big "c" word: Change,” says Ralph Thompson, assistant superintendent of student services for Metro Public Schools. “Some people can’t get past the big “t” word: Tradition.”

To improve the situation is one thing. To commit to a totally different approach to improve the situation is something else entirely—and that’s what Nashville had to contend with when it looked to outsourcing for its answer.

For years, districts across the country have made do with local help: homegrown programs, local colleges and universities, and the like. Any outsourcing that took place was usually on the operational side—meals, buses, and janitorial services—or at the margins—after-school and test prep. (An extreme case would be the private management of the schools, such as Edison Schools in Philadelphia.)

Nashville was no different. “For the longest time, Nashville was this perfect example—the answers were right there in the city,” says mayoral education aide Danielle Mezera. “Everything you could respond to was homegrown. You could do it yourself.”

The district’s struggles are in many ways emblematic of what large and mid-size districts across the U.S. are going through: academic struggles, increasing political pressure on achievement, and challenges to the traditional way of doing things. To help themselves get on the right side of these obstacles, New York, Los Angeles, Hartford, Denver, and New Orleans are now all making use of the ever-increasing array of outside groups. Memphis, and now Nashville, are also heading that way. The result is a convergence of outside organizations partnering with the district to provide all sorts of things—highly qualified teachers, principal training, personalized education programs—that districts struggled to fulfill on their own. Call it the outsourced district.

Does it work? Not always. Is it happening more and more? You bet.

Meet the Players

Over the past few years, a slew of “brand-name” outside education organizations have sprung up. Undoubtedly you’ve heard of some of them: the Knowledge is Power Program (kipp), Teach for America (tfa), The New Teacher Project (tntp), and New Leaders For New Schools (nlns). And there are more. These organizations, many of them relatively new, are highly regarded in some circles as model efforts that can boost a district’s rate of improvement, often with foundation support.

Many of these organizations focus on training and supporting teachers and principals—what are now called human capital issues. The New Teacher Project is a good example. It focuses on working with human resources offices in school districts to help them find, screen, and place qualified teachers—usually by revamping the recruitment and intake processes and being much more pro-active about seeking candidates in areas with high demand. Since 1997, tntp has recruited and placed more than 28,000 teachers in over 200 districts. In New York, the home of tntp for the last eight years, the organization is now responsible for recruiting a quarter of all math teachers in the city.

Other organizations have different focuses or methods. Using a medical residency model, nlns recruits and trains principals, who are committed for six years to transform their individual schools. kipp runs a network of 57 charter schools that can accomplish what districts cannot—longer school hours and mandated parental contracts. tfa provides highly qualified teachers who commit to teaching for two years in schools that experience high turnover and constant vacancies. Another agency, The Big Picture Company, runs a network of 70 small, alternative high schools.

These organizations have proliferated in part because of No Child Left Behind, which altered the local landscape by poking holes in the homegrown way of doing things and raising the bar when it comes to improved academic outcomes.

Why Nashville, Why Now?

Chris Henson, now the interim director of schools in Nashville, arrived on the scene six years ago. He describes Nashville’s consistently poor ratings under nclb as “the tipping point of looking at nontraditional things,” whatever they may be. “We realized that no one-size-fits-all approach was working anymore and we needed different ways to meet the needs of students,” he says.

Bill Purcell, until recently the mayor of Nashville, also brought increased attention to education issues. Between 1999 and last year, Purcell repaired the physical infrastructure of the city’s schools and created school support organizations that helped raise millions in funds for Nashville schools.

But Nashville needed more, and slowly but surely the possibility of hiring outside organizations mutated from a far-out notion to an idea under consideration. This is partly because it was creeping into the community and taking root. One kipp school, delayed due to Tennessee’s restrictive charter law, finally opened its doors in 2005. A Big Picture School started a year after that.

Ralph Tagg, principal of Big Picture in Nashville, described Big Picture’s 2006 arrival on the scene as a break of the local mold. “I thought we would find resistance, but it was the opposite,” says Tagg. “We were welcomed.” Tagg is himself a product of the Nashville schools.

Randy Dowell, principal of the kipp school in Nashville, encountered a bit more resistance, in part because kipp schools are charters. But things have smoothed out over time. “Nashville is becoming more accepting to what we’re doing and has moved past acceptance to outright encouragement,” he says.

The process has accelerated in the last year with the arrival of a new mayor, Karl Dean, who is intent not only on expanding Purcell’s education legacy, but forging his own. His attention to the issue may be fueled to a certain extent by a bit of old-school rivalry: Memphis, a long-time rival of the district, is bringing in outside organizations—and successfully. Call it outsourcing envy, but Dean wants what Memphis has.The push for outside help came in large part from a 2007 visit by the mayor and his team to Memphis. “We went to Memphis because we had heard all these great things,” says aide Mezera, who advises Dean on education. “The mayor looked at me and asked, ‘Do we have that in Nashville?’” After going through the laundry list of programs, the answer, uniformly, was no.In a major speech this spring, Mayor Dean made a very public case for why Nashville needed outside help—tfa, in particular. “We need to be exploring opportunities to bring the best and brightest teachers to our schools most in need,” said Dean in his address. “Teach for America is one such program making this happen in other cities across the country. We need such a program in Nashville.” Perhaps the most vivid example of what Nashville didn’t have was principal training. Meanwhile in Memphis, nlns has used a highly selective recruiting process and an intense training program to place 45 school leaders in the city’s public schools—a quarter of the principals in the entire district.Hoping to resolve Nashville’s lack of highly trained principals, Dean and his team went to New York this summer to meet with many of these groups and potential funders. But unlike in years past, the organizations now have more interest from districts than they could possibly meet. With any luck, according to the Dean team, tfa, tntp, and nlns will soon expand to Music City. The groups tend to run together, and some of them are connected programmatically. Currently, about 60 percent of kipp’s school leaders are tfa alumni. Often, one outside group arrives, and then others soon follow.

The Pros and Cons

In many cases, when districts turn to these outside organizations for help the result is improved student achievement. But not always. In fact, there are examples of disappointment and utter failure. In Detroit, tfa withdrew its involvement after a much-heralded arrival in the city. And in Chicago, a kipp school was forced to shut down.

Additionally, no one knows for sure if this kind of outsourcing works. Hank Levin, a professor at Columbia University Teacher’s College, points out that there is little hard evidence to support the effectiveness of these groups, not as they operate together. The organizations have been studied individually, but there’s no data on what happens when they converge on a district.

“Even if they don’t have evidence, they have the glow of evidence,” says Levin. “People think what they’re doing is good.”
There is some danger of lost accountability and decreased local capacity too. “Looking at contracting in Iraq, if you end up where there’s just a few providers and you become dependent on the providers, your ability to oversee them to change is diminished,” says Jeffrey Henig, a political science professor at Columbia’s Teachers College.

Concerns aside, districts now have to woo the outside organizations. In the past, it was the other way around. Convincing local stakeholders to give it a try is usually less of a problem.

As for Nashville’s Metro, reactions to this type of outsourcing have been mixed. “Some [in the district] felt like they were getting their toes stepped on, others opened their arms,” says assistant superintendent Thompson. “I went through my own process and the only thing I could come up with for why not [to welcome them] is that they’re an outside agency,” he says. “Once I got past that, I realized we need to try this because we need to do everything we can to help every child in the district.”

For some administrators, the issue isn’t territory, it’s coordination. “I’m really sad we had to be slapped in the face with the fact that we need outside help,” says June Keel, assistant superintendent of human resources. “All I ask is that I’m at the table when decisions are made.”

Keel says her nightmare is a bunch of silos creeping up all over Nashville, with nothing to bind them together. “If you have an octopus and you cut off its head, you then have eight different arms,” she says.

There’s also the issue of funding. Outside partnerships are highly subsidized to start but they don’t come free. At some point, as Victoria Van Cleef, tntp’s vice president of staffing, puts it, “District partners have to have some skin in the game.” She adds, “We’ll pay for this now but we need your help to pay for the rest.”

The challenge going forward seems not to stem the tide, but for districts to be selective in first dictating who gets past the gates and then who is allowed to stay. “Districts make the mistake in looking for a silver bullet, bringing a certain program in and thinking it’s going to fix everything,” says Thompson. “It’s the biggest mistake you can make.” Thompson urged the need to frame bringing in these organizations in terms of partnership—not takeover.

Meanwhile, tfa, tntp, and nlns are all being offered keys to the city. Most are expected to be up and running by September of 2009. All that is left for the folks in Nashville to do is unfurl the welcome mat. “Our district, while not panicking, is in a very critical state,” says Thompson. “But we aren’t trying wholesale programs. We can’t just go out and allow them to be cropping up all over.”

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