Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

New York City Charlotte, NC San Diego, CA

district wide reform

by Sam Hornblower

James Pughsley and Eric Smith

James Pughsley, left, former deputy superintendent, succeeded Eric Smith, right, and maintained continuity for reform in Charlotte.

There is no short cut to reforming a school district. It takes time, steady leadership and consistency. “We've learned in the last quarter century that you don't get results unless you stick to something over the period of time that it takes to get those results,” said Steve Fleischman of the American Institutes for Research.

Tony Alvarado spent 11 years turning around District 2 in New York City, before his like-minded deputy succeeded him in 1998. In Charlotte, North Carolina, reformer Eric Smith thrived for six years as superintendent, and was followed in 2002 by his deputy James Pughsley, who was committed to the same reforms.

“Time is very important,” observes David Sherman, a leader of the United Federation of Teachers who worked with Alvarado in New York's District 2. “You can't change schools and cultures of schools that have existed in a certain way for 20 or 30 years and then turn them around in one year. It takes a few years.”

Time requires continuity. If the original architect of educational reform leaves a district, as Eric Smith did in Charlotte, his reforms have continuing impact and momentum only if his successor carries them on. “When you constantly have a churning at the superintendency level, what you have is a change in direction,” says Pughsley, who stuck with Smith's strategy. “You can't just be flip-flopping all along the way.”

In every successfully implemented district reform program, and even for reform at the individual school level, sufficient time is the common denominator.

Dr. James Comer of Yale University says it has taken four to five years for his program to turn schools around and improve performance. Chicago-based principal Maurice Harvey says it took four years for him personally to adapt to the Comer Process. “It takes a while,” says Harvey. “We are able to sustain what we have because of those slow incremental gains we have made. And that, to me, that's more important than making a big jump all at once.”

The KIPP program seeks a minimum of four years in a middle school for students to make a real dent in their performance. And to avoid losing those gains, they would need to continue the program through all four years of high school.

David Scott, a school district official in Mount Vernon Washington, says that in the first year of the program, Success For All, their schools experienced a dip in performance while teachers were adjusting to the program, but achievement bounced upward in the second year. It has taken roughly eight to ten years for them to produce sustained achievement gains.

And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence showing the importance of giving reform initiatives time to incubate, the track record indicates that in most school districts, reforms are aborted before coming to term. According to the American Association of School Administrators, the average urban superintendent stays in a district only 2.5 years before moving on.

District superintendents in America owe their shortened tenure and the abbreviated life of their reforms to the public's impatience and the difficulty of getting important stakeholders on board.

It's true that a sense of urgency is crucial to generating reform and necessary to drive change system-wide, but that urgency may also give many voters unrealistic expectations about how quickly reform strategies can work. If eagerness to turn reform measures into results is not tempered by an understanding of how long it takes to implement district reform, then political support fades and a superintendent can lose his job.

Even for those who manage to stay in office for several years, implementing reform can be very difficult, as Alan Bersin discovered during his seven-year tenure as school superintendent in San Diego, from 1998 to 2005.

One of the major challenges for any superintendent is mastering the often-internecine politics of education – getting all the important stakeholders lined up behind reform and committed to carrying it out. It takes a compelling vision and constant effort to get the local school board, the educational bureaucracy, principals, teachers, the teachers' union, the local civic leaders and activist parents all headed in the same direction.

Even when federal or state standards impose a requirement for reform, and even when some key constituencies are calling for change and new leadership, there are still other groups or powerful individuals with a vested interest in the status quo, since reform almost invariably brings personnel shake-ups and important shifts in the allocation of precious resources and forces people to change well-established ways of operating.

Different interest groups can have diverse and sometimes conflicting goals. Parents' interests can vary greatly depending on where they live, their socio-economic class, ethnicity/race/culture, and even the special needs of their child. Business and labor interests can also be at odds and hard to reconcile.

Enlisting the support of schoolteachers is critical. Without their complete confidence in the consistency and stability of the district leadership, they can become cynical, waiting to see if reform is for real and will last.

The shifting tides of reform have made teachers wary of immediately plunging into adopting “the flavor of the month” – the new curriculums, strategies, teaching methods and pet concepts of the new superintendent. Why, for example, would a teacher put serious effort into what may be merely this year's education reform fad? Until teachers are convinced that the superintendent is going to be in office for several years, many front-line teachers and principals simply keep their heads down and go on doing what they have always done.

“The way educational reform has been defeated year in and year out in urban America – those who resist change, tied to old ways of seeing and doing, simply wait out the reformers,” observes Alan Bersin, who felt frustrated by stand-pat resistance to his reforms as San Diego's superintendent.

Even when the constituencies are lined up, implementing reform effectively across an entire school system can take almost a decade. Administrators, principals and teachers must all be retrained, often by outside consultants. Indoctrinating staff in the central office and schools to new curriculums, new materials, and new ways of operating is a huge and ongoing undertaking for a big school system.

Radical change inside the classroom, in both substance and performance, usually demands a whole new infrastructure. In New York, Anthony Alvarado brought in reading specialists from New Zealand and Australia to reinforce teacher-training experts from Columbia University. In San Diego, Alvarado set up a new leadership academy for training principals and instructional leaders.

When Eric Smith became Charlotte's superintendent in 1996, he had strong political backing at the state and local level. Key stakeholders in the business community and among various interest groups were on board. That enabled Smith to push through tough and sometimes controversial reform measures, such as a common reading curriculum and scripted pacing guides for teachers. He was also given the resources to build an intricate software, data and periodic testing system, which gave him the tools to track progress in every school, every classroom and with every student throughout the year. And when his information revealed shortfalls, Smith could act with dispatch to remedy the situation.

As superintendent in Charlotte for six years, Smith had time to get his reforms imbedded and get momentum behind them. In San Diego, Alan Bersin had seven years as superintendent, but it was not the same quality time. Bersin lacked the critical support that Eric Smith enjoyed. His school board was narrowly split (3-2) in favor of reform on the day he took over and he confronted stiff resistance from the teachers' union, the San Diego Education Association. His experience illustrates how a district leader can see his reform hampered or watered down, either by his failure to develop political support for his program or by the entrenched opposition of key constituencies.

Nonetheless, time helped Bersin. Just being able to stay in office for seven years enabled Bersin and his academic chancellor, Anthony Alvarado, to carry out significant reforms, changing the culture of teaching in San Diego schools significantly and showing concrete gains in student achievement at the elementary and middle school levels, though less than what both had hoped for. The ultimate fate of the San Diego reforms will depend on whether Bersin's successor sustains some of his main strategies.

In Charlotte, Eric Smith's reforms maintained momentum because he was succeeded by his deputy, James Pughsley, who was committed to the same strategy, carrying it forward for three more years. In New York's District 2, Alvarado was also succeeded by his deputy, Elaine Fink, who deepened and widened Alvarado's reforms. But in many cities, where a reform-minded superintendent has been ousted in three years or less, reforms have often been stopped dead in their tracks or reversed by an anti-reform takeover on the school board.

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