Thursday, April 3, 2014

Buried Treasure: It Takes a City

Lyndon B. Johnson once quipped, “Good politics is good government.” Johnson realized that whether a given public policy achieves its intended objectives is rarely a matter solely of technical design. Rather, success depends both on the quality of the plan and whether it is implemented fully enough to stand the chance of having an impact—a process that may take years.

It has been more than a decade since my colleagues at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Paul Hill and Christine Campbell, wrote It Takes a City: Getting Serious About Urban School Reform along with James Harvey. But its lessons about urban school reform are as relevant now as they were then. In analyzing systemic education reform in six cities, the authors posed a question of enormous consequence: How can city leaders construct reform strategies that promise to be powerful enough and last long enough to make a difference?

Fixing urban schools, they argued, requires more than lofty goals or incomplete strategies. The reform plans in the studied cities too often relied on “zones of wishful thinking”—assuming that teachers, principals, and district administrators would do what was right, rather than creating a plan that provided the incentives, freedom, and capacity for them to do so. Combining the best elements of each, the authors put forth three new reform models, including one option that would provide community oversight of a system of autonomous schools, much like the portfolio strategy does today.

The authors make clear that implementing ambitious urban school reform requires securing the commitment of actors whose private interests are often in conflict, and sustaining those commitments beyond the tenure of any one leader or institution. An initiative that threatens no one will change little; one that threatens more people than it attracts is unlikely to survive. Fixing urban schools is an exercise in politics.

Viewing education reform in political terms is not to denigrate it. Policies can be politically robust without being good, but no policy that lacks political support can endure long enough to be implemented. Political success and substantive success are inherently connected.

The politics of implementation loom particularly large in contemporary education reform. Whether teacher evaluation, Common Core standards, or the portfolio strategy are implemented fully enough to have an impact on student learning in cities and states across the nation remains to be seen. Each of these reforms illustrates that the fights don’t end once agreements are forged and written into law. In most cases, they are just beginning.

So what is an education reformer to do, especially in the wake of the leadership turnover and ensuing policy churn that plagues most urban school systems? The authors offer a variety of insights, still germane today, for understanding how to make reforms stick.

  1. Put centrists at the helm, relegate ideologues to the margins. Every reform strategy must be tended by someone who will both “insist on the necessity of reform and press to acknowledge and learn from failures,” the authors wrote. Ignoring mistakes provides ammunition to opponents and weakens the credibility of leaders.
  2. Invest in new institutions, abandon old ones. Many reforms fail when confronted with impenetrable institutional arrangements—just see what happens when a principal is given new autonomy under a move toward site-based decisionmaking, but the district office keeps making the same old demands. Ensuring complete implementation requires creating new roles, systems, and capabilities to support the reform strategy.
  3. Develop reform leaders with deep roots in the community who can outlast superintendents and school board members. The challenge for contemporary education reformers is a simple one: How can they ensure their reform plans are not washed away along with the superintendent or school board majority that started them? Superintendents and school boards alone cannot ensure urban school reform will last long enough to have an impact. New sources of leadership must be cultivated to analyze and support reform efforts, and buffer them from the opposition.

As education reformers in cities across the United States celebrate their successes, they should also carefully consider how their efforts might be derailed by the inevitable conflicts that arise throughout implementation. Only by crafting strategies that channel political conflicts productively will education reform have a chance at improving outcomes for its intended beneficiaries.

Related Research: 
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