MFS Lessons Learned Part Two: The How

Michigan Future Schools (MFS), a seven-year long initiative of Michigan Future, Inc., to fund and grow high schools in Detroit that are committed to high school graduation (read more here) wound down its work last summer. We’ve spent time this year reflecting on some of the central lessons learned by MFS staff throughout the years working with new high schools, and have recently added two presentations to our website that share some of those key learnings (scroll down at the link and you can download both of them as PDFs).

The first (“Lessons Learned”), which Pat Cooney wrote about on this blog yesterday, was about what “college-ready” really means. We’ve learned that it’s a lot more than a test score, which was the understanding that informed MFS when it launched. Click here to read about the multiple capacities that we believe high school students need to succeed in college.

The second key lesson is important for anyone wondering how to try to create stronger options for Detroit students–and, we believe, students in most American cities:

If we want to dramatically change student outcomes, we need to build quality central offices in educational institutions.

This means that educational institutions should be looking to take on the functions of a high-quality central office, and that anyone who works with schools—capacity builders, funders, and charter school authorizers—should seek ways to enable the growth of strong central offices.

We came to this conclusion in two ways. First, it was informed by our own experience at MFS. Second, we researched the schools that are achieving breakthrough results around the country.

Our Experience as a Capacity Builder

As an organization trying to build capacity with schools, we first tried working directly with teachers. Nothing stuck, because the capacities we tried to build weren’t necessarily being reinforced by principals. Then, we tried working with principals. That too had negligible impact, because principals are most incentivized to work on what their bosses (superintendents) prioritize. Given the state’s emphasis on standardized test scores, this too often drove off the ability of educators to think about teaching an expanded set of skills and capacities to students. Another factor was the simple hectic nature of working in the school building, where the competing and urgent demands of the day prevent teachers and leaders from carving out the time needed to do deep design work.

We eventually realized that central offices were the appropriate point for our intervention. First, for our capacity-building efforts to take root in the schools, it was necessary to get those in charge to own the design work. Second, we found that the design work we realized needed to get kids college-ready was a massive undertaking.

The Models of High-Performing Networks

We looked at top-performing charter networks from around the country and saw some common things. The presentation we put together inclues a few slides that list the central office staff departments and members from Uncommon Schools. We included this to emphasize the sheer size of their team, and the functions they have built it to accomplish. The point is that from curriculum to coaching, data, fundraising, and teacher recruitment, the Uncommon network evidently believes that investing in their central office is a priority. This robust central office has the capacity, in each area, to work on school design, to provide capacity-building services, and to provide direct services that lightens the load of the schools themselves so that they can better focus on students and families.

We also share stories from KIPP and Yes Prep. Both stories deal with the fact that these networks expected a certain level of college success from their students that the students then didn’t achieve. It’s important to note that because these networks were concerned with college success, they were actually tracking college persistence data on their alumni. When the results were less than they hoped, they undertook deep reflective work and made significant changes to the design of their schools. This level of redesign is not going to reliably occur at the building level. A central office must undertake it.

What Makes a Quality Central Office?

From these stories and other research, we believe there are five central characteristics of a quality central office:

  • Is totally committed to, and internally motivated by, a goal for what their students can do after they leave the building;
  • Collects data on whether they are succeeding – for KIPP and YES Prep, this was whether their students were actually graduating from college;
  • Redesigns their model based on their successes or failures;
  • Ensures that these designs are being rolled out by their schools, through accountability, metrics, and capacity building supports; and
  • Takes responsibility for hiring and developing talent.

While there are Detroit central offices with promise, none is yet at the level of Uncommon, KIPP, or Yes Prep in developing all five of these characteristics.

MFS as a Virtual Central Office

For the schools that MFS worked with, after learning about what strong central offices are capable of and talking with college partners, we tried to become a sort of virtual central office for our schools. Like the examples of the central offices from high-performing networks, the services that we ended up providing to our schools were based on our research of what leads to college success. (This is covered in detail in the presentation Pat wrote about yesterday.)

What Does This Mean for My Organization?

Our presentation on central offices ends with the types of organizations that we believe could do more to become or support quality central offices, or to take on some central office functions that are, at present, missing from Detroit schools. We categorize these organizations as (1) networks/systems, (2) capacity builders (organizations that work with schools to do things like principal or teacher training), (3) funders, who fund schools, networks, and capacity builders, and (4) charter school authorizers.

You can see our specific recommendations in the presentation, but there are some themes that reach across organization types. First is the importance of recognizing your entity’s role, and accepting that we will not have, at scale, better results for Detroit kids without prioritizing the growth of central offices that can do really monumental design work. Second, for any of these entities, we are suggesting that they may need to really realign their own ways of working around how they can best support central offices in an expanded understanding of what kids need.

Finally, all of these organizations (and some have begun to do this) need to recommit to learning what it will take to produce college and career ready students at the end of the 12th grade. We must all jointly take on the commitment that success after our students leave our schools is our responsibility.

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