One of the main lessons we learned from our Michigan Future Schools initiative is, contrary to conventional wisdom, the core characteristic of pre K-12 schools nationally that are getting breakthrough gains in student achievement is the commitment and capability of the management of schools (the central office of both charter school networks and traditional public school districts), not building level leadership and/or the quality of the teachers.
The quality of the principal; other academic building-level leaders; and teachers, of course, matter, but they, by and large, are a reflection of the quality of the central office both in hiring and developing building-level talent and in providing building-level professionals with a playbook for meeting high student outcome standards.
Figuring out what capacities/skills children need to be college and career ready; designing schools to build those capacities/skills; and then successfully executing that design is really hard work. Expecting principals and teachers to figure that out on top of their daily responsibilities is, to say the least, unrealistic.
Our experience with the schools we worked with––almost all were charter schools––is that principals and teachers were changed regularly and yet student outcomes didn’t change much from year to year. What didn’t change much is the central office design of schools; their ability to build the capacity of the schools they managed to execute their design; or their system for hiring and developing building-level educators. To us these are the levers that matter most to getting the kind of breakthrough gains in student achievement we all say we want.
To make matters worse we have an accountability system for student outcomes that has the most consequences for teachers and principals. They can lose their jobs if student test scores don’t meet standards. Somehow we have decided that if only we could fire more easily low quality principals and teachers we would get big gains in student outcomes. Think again! Yes there are low quality principals and teachers that should be more easy to dismiss in public schools.
But there are no such restrictions to doing that in the charter sector and the absence of those restrictions doesn’t lead to breakthrough student achievement gains in charter schools that don’t have central offices that have designed and implemented systems to prepare students to be college and career ready.
(To see the needed management competencies take a look at the functions of Uncommon Schools’ central office. They are one of the charter systems that is recognized for moving towards the kind of student outcomes that we all say we want.)
If we want to use accountability as a key lever to drive improvement in student outcomes, the system should be designed to primarily hold those who manage schools accountable. And that accountability system should be based on metrics that predict college and career ready, rather than just standardized test scores that turn out not to be very predictive of either. (For more on the inadequacy of standardized tests see this previous post.)
The hope is when you get the metrics right and the accountability system right you get central offices analyzing student success and redesigning schooling based on that analysis. (For a terrific example of how this can work see this from Yes Prep!)