HOW LONG FOR REFORM
by Sam Hornblower
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.