Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith lessons learned

lessons learned

Written By Jenny Smith

teacher and principals

Responsibility flows two ways in effective reform: teachers are accountable to principals and vice versa.

Accountability is the mantra of education policymakers today, essential to improving student performance. It filters down from Washington to state education departments and from state agencies to district superintendents, to school principals and classroom teachers – each held accountable for their students' results. When students don't deliver, schools and districts face both the stigma of low performance and sanctions for failing to meet targets or make AYP – Adequate Yearly Progress – under the 2002 legislation, No Child Left Behind.

“In my estimation, schools do need to be held accountable but they need an enormous amount of support,” says Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Simmons goes on to point out that many low performing schools and districts don't know what to do differently to improve achievement, and if they are going to be held accountable for higher performance, they need the state or the district to give them the tools, training and resources to get better results.

Successful districts and comprehensive reform programs have discovered that accountability doesn't lift performance unless the responsibility for improvement flows two ways, both downward into the schools, and upward to the district, state and political leaders.

“This is a much more robust sense of what accountability is,” says Anthony Alvarado, highly acclaimed as former superintendent of New York‘s District 2. “You are accountable to me for a result; I am accountable to you for the tools and the support that you need to achieve that result.” It is a shared responsibility among teachers, principals, district administrators, schools boards, state education agencies and political leaders.

“We want to have good instruction used every single day with every single kid,” says Bob Slavin, co-founder of the reform program Success for All (SFA). “And it's just not going to happen if you don't provide teachers with the materials and the professional development and the backup and the assistance to help them use those things.”

Success for All, used effectively in many low performing schools, provides not only extensive training for teachers, scripted lesson plans and tutoring for struggling students, it also requires that all their schools have a full-time Success for All facilitator to make sure that teachers get the support and resources they need to help all of their students.

According to Anthony Alvarado, penalizing people when they don't have the tools or support to do better will not boost performance.

“Part of the problem in education is everybody wants to achieve results, but,” says Alvarado, “if you don't focus the organization on learning what to do, just hacking peoples' heads off because the results don't show, that doesn't improve the quality of learning and the improvement of performance in the system.”

In District 2, Alvarado advocated and practiced a new form of leadership in which accountability was a shared responsibility. When he re-oriented the role of principals from building managers to instructional leaders, holding them accountable for the quality of instruction in their schools and for improved student performance, he and his team in the district shared the responsibility for giving principals support in other areas of management to enable them to be effective in their new role.

“The same thing that we expect principals to do with teachers is what leaders at the district are to do with principals,” Alvarado explained. “Our job is to support. Our job is to help them. Our job is to help their job become more effective.”

Alvarado realized that if the district was going to demand higher performance from schools and expect principals to shift their focus to improving instruction, then the central office had an obligation to free up the principals from their usual responsibilities of managing bus schedules, handling lunchroom details and other administrative tasks.

“The two-way accountability notion or what we call a cyclical accountability is key,” says Annenberg Institute's Warren Simmons. “If you want principals to turn their attention away from bus schedules, transportation facilities maintenance, then those responsibilities which still exist in schools have to be carried out by someone else. And carried out well. And so what Tony Alvarado designed in District 2 were systems and people that took those responsibilities off the shoulders of principals, so that principals could spend the vast majority of their time walking through classrooms, looking at instruction and supporting the development or their teachers.”

In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, former superintendent Eric Smith also ascribed to the two-way accountability concept. Smith put a great deal of emphasis on providing the poorest performing schools with all the district support available to lift them up to meet the requirements of the district and state.

“The thing I did not do was ever blame the teacher,” says Smith. “I didn't see it as a teacher problem. It was an administrative problem from central office in Charlotte that didn't support that classroom teacher.'

The central office shared accountability by being responsible for developing a curriculum in line with the state standards, producing pacing guides for teachers that laid out the agenda and focus of each day's lessons and structuring tests to determine whether or not students were learning what they were supposed to learn. And if schools still failed with the additional support, the district provided even more: they went to these schools with teams of educational experts, new lesson plans and incentives for teachers.

While this admittedly cost money, according to Smith's estimates it did not cost as much as what was already being spent at schools in the suburbs.

“When we looked at our total operating costs, even with the supplement, the additional teachers, the additional materials, the supplies, perhaps the summer enrichment programs, the Saturday schools, the after school programs – all these things to bring about equity,” he says, “we still found that we were not running at a higher rate of cost to the district than the cost factor at the suburban schools.”

Smith in Charlotte, Alvarado in District 2 and Slavin with Success for All recognized that accountability is not about holding one person or school responsible for success or failure, and it is not simply about more money and materials. If accountability is to work effectively, the responsibility for improving student performance flows two ways – both up from the classroom to the principal and district, and down from the state to the district to the individual school. Nothing less will truly work.

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