Why Don't Schools Learn From Each Other?
As more districts meet regularly and collaborate, leaders are discovering the best source of new ideas might be right next door.
While in Singapore visiting his aunt, math teacher Si Swun observed her at work in her classroom. What he saw her doing—teaching fewer math concepts but exploring them more deeply—inspired him to try the approach out on his fifth graders in Long Beach, California.
He went home and developed a curriculum that worked so well administrators asked him to train other teachers in his school, and then others in the district. One year after implementing Si Swun's Map2D program, Long Beach USD fifth graders made a 24-point gain in math proficiency.
It's a nice story about a district recognizing success and expanding its potential. But that's not where the story ends. Long Beach superintendent Chris Steinhauser told Fresno superintendent Mike Hanson about Map2D, and word spread through an informal administrator grapevine. Within a year, teachers in Fresno, Oakland, Compton, and Garden Grove were trained in Map2D and math scores in their districts were going up, too.
What worked well in Long Beach is now working in some of California's big districts because superintendents were chatting around a kind of virtual water cooler. What was casual and occasional has matured into a network of three districts whose staff communicates daily.
"The key is we have big, small, wealthy, and poor districts in our network," Steinhauser says. "If seven districts can work together to implement reform, what powerful tools we will have to offer other districts in California. We've agreed that whatever we do will be available for anyone to use. This is not just for our million kids."
It's tempting to think of administrators as coaches, urging principals, teachers, and students toward the highest scores possible. But a growing number of district leaders are reaching out to one another to share substantive knowledge and experience: the good stuff, the bad, and everything else in between.
"I'm of the opinion that this is the only way we are going to win the future," says Hanson. "It's not about competition between districts anymore. It's about competing so all our kids are better prepared. But resources aren't there in the same way and we shouldn't expect them to be. We should be thinking about how we can better leverage ourselves."
Common Core Values
When it came time to apply for Race to the Top funding and, later, roll out Common Core standards, the California network expanded to eight. Along with Fresno, Long Beach, and Garden Grove, the districts of Clovis, Sanger, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles banded together to share goals and practices.
If the language of Race to the Top ostensibly promotes competition, then the state-based Common Core standards are enhancing collaboration. This is certainly true in Nevada, where many districts are rural and remote. State professional development funding is spent regionally on four centers that provide teacher and administrator professional development. Working across district lines is proving to be especially critical as the state rolls out and integrates Common Core standards.
"Common Core is so big that districts are saying, ‘Why should we all reinvent the wheel?'" says Dave Brancamp, director of Nevada's Northwest Regional Professional Development Program. "Our districts do a lot of back-and-forth Skyping. The biggest challenge here is geography. We have Clark County with Las Vegas and then we have frontier districts with one-room schoolhouses."
The California network started, appropriately, at a meeting of the California Collaborative on District Reform three years ago. Hanson and Steinhauser got to talking and realized their districts were similar in many ways, including poverty rates and numbers of English language learners. Students in both districts had also struggled with algebra. Hanson and Steinhauser exchanged e-mail addresses and their experiences with math instruction: Steinhauser told Hanson about Si Swun's curriculum, and Hanson shared an algebra development program for eighth graders.
When this trade produced big gains in both districts, the superintendents broadened the partnership. They identified three areas of focus: math, leadership development, and ELL instruction. They recently added a fourth focus: career-ready technology.
"We find ourselves improving upon one another's work," says Hanson. "You don't think of your school district as a laboratory, but it becomes one when you have a partner looking in and helping. You're in a conversation with someone who is pursuing the exact same goals you are, but who may be thinking about them differently."
This is what David Dresslar, who directs the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning (CELL) at the University of Indianapolis, would call a "defining moment" in a partnership-when members realize that the potential of their partnership goes beyond working together on a single issue.
"This is the moment when people realize that they're not alone, they're in a movement, a club," says Dresslar. "When the principal at one school calls upon the principal at another to exchange teachers or solutions, that's when networking has the power to transform."
Dresslar's group helps Indiana high schools implement innovative programs by gathering school leaders and providing resources. CELL's member schools and districts are grouped into networks to focus on specific themes like high school to college transition, business-education partnerships, and running high-tech high schools. Their annual conference has grown from 300 attendees five years ago to 900 in 2010.
The center initially worked with its members individually but it became clear that they shared so many common issues that it would be mutually beneficial to work together. "It was a natural thing for us to network the districts that were implementing models together. They benefit so much from getting to know one another," Dresslar says.
CELL recently took some of its members' concerns to the Indiana Department of Education. Members of the New Tech Network represent 16 high schools in Indiana. Based upon a definitive model, the schools were having trouble reconciling some of their course titles, textbook policies, and even physical education requirements with the state's rules. As a group they were able to convince the state to waive the requirements.
The schools themselves have expanded upon CELL's facilitated partnering.
"Our motto is, ‘The answer is in the room,'" says Alan Veach, principal of Bloomington New Tech High School. "We pride ourselves on working collaboratively on issues related to our schools. The directors across our network communicate virtually on a daily basis."
Veach and principals of three other New Tech high schools worked together with Ivy Tech Community College on a program that allows high school students to earn college credit. The plan has become a model for a statewide agreement between Ivy Tech and all of Indiana's New Tech high schools.
"One of the key benefits is just having support in doing the work," says Veach. "I have never left a session with my colleagues that I didn't feel revitalized."
In Indiana's Rochester School Corporation, Superintendent Debra Howe says that opening their schools up to visitors and colleagues has improved their work. "We have around 800 visitors from throughout the state, nation, and even from Korea," she says. "We have provided ideas and challenges for the other districts, and it benefits us as we gain a greater understanding of our own programs."
Taking the Plunge
When three districts in North Carolina agreed to support a common early-college high school, it was the first time any of them had been involved in such a complicated collaboration.
"There were some very challenging conversations," says Tony Habit, president of North Carolina New Schools Project. "There were questions around the cost of educating the students, transportation, and food services. These are difficult but ongoing conversations."
The schools persevered. Now they are part of a network of schools with similar characteristics and they all receive professional development together.
The New Schools network also aims to provide the professional development and coaching necessary to get members through the rough patches of partnership. When things get sketchy at the opening of a new school, for example, facilitators step in to help with communication strategies and peer observation.
"We try to support the superintendents toward the long-term viability of the school," Habit says. "The people are leading a vision. They share the excitement. We help them to lean on each other and ask meaningful questions."
Support is the key. Habit's staff facilitates meetings and peer observation sessions, guiding school leaders through discussion. Adequate staffing, it turns out, is crucial to the California network as well. In both Fresno and Long Beach, there are staff members dedicated to facilitating the partnership. Staff with overlapping duties in each district meet regularly and the superintendents themselves speak every week and meet several times a year.
"Besides us," says Fresno's Mike Hanson, "there are two staff people to do the day-to-day planning. Those guys are in contact every day. We've built a framework to keep us focused. It is complex, but this is what really great teachers do. They've got a great lesson, they talk about it at the staff meeting. All we're trying to do is build upon that kind of relationship but take it beyond teacher-to-teacher or even principal-to-principal and make it organization-to-organization."