The latest report from UVA’s Partnership for Leaders in Education is breathlessly upbeat about the opportunities for radical, disruptive changes in K–12 education.
The authors interviewed eighteen “strategically selected” superintendents, half of whom were connected with the partnership’s previous innovation and improvement work, and solicited feedback from another twenty-five individuals at various leadership levels. The focus was on opportunities to speed up Covid-disruption recovery with a goal of improved outcomes for students, among other things. The analysts synthesized their responses and identified four broad areas in which these leaders have been innovating to achieve “dramatically improved results.”
First up: innovative secondary models. This area largely focuses on how and how well high schools prepare students for a range of postsecondary options, including college and career. Areas of innovation include career and technical education specific to regional employment needs, improving access to early college courses, and increasing project-based learning opportunities.
Second: far-reaching academic acceleration. Actions highlighted here include reevaluating priority standards and pacing guides to squeeze more content into available time, extended day or year calendars, changing curricular materials away from those that have not worked, and a greater focus on social-emotional learning.
Third: creative staffing. Some examples include higher teacher pay to aid in retention, grow-your-own programs to boost recruitment, and new community partnerships to help diversify the adults working in all capacities in schools.
Finally: equitable resource reallocation. This means reviewing how dollars are allocated in districts and individual schools and making changes to prioritize real student needs.
How did these transformations—some of them very big asks indeed—get underway? Leadership, say the authors. Not through top-down edicts and sweeping revamps by newcomers, but by building teams and creating buy-in from large groups of individuals, and then investing in the training needed to equip the future doers to go forth and do. A number of district leaders are featured throughout, along with analysis of their impacts. However, details on the outcomes of most efforts are scarce, and the timelines indicate that many of them likely started before the pandemic. Given the effort required to start—let alone complete—these transformations, the Covid-era framing of the report seems unlikely and a bit too convenient.
This report is mainly sizzle with a little bit of steak, with absolutely no gristle allowed. For example, discussion of Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s “successful” luring of the Say Yes college scholarship program to northeast Ohio does not include the precarious funding gap that is only partially plugged by an unplanned infusion of one-time ESSER money from the city. This is not to impugn the efforts, the potential benefits, or the commitment of city officials, but implementation and cost realities are notably absent throughout this report.
America’s school leaders have certainly learned a lesson or two from the fallout of pandemic disruption, and most want to do things differently to dig out. But if entire entrenched bureaucracies have to give way before any such transformations can get started (let alone stick), then two other impacts of the pandemic—enrollment losses and a burgeoning of school choice—will be the actual guiding forces of transformation.
SOURCE: William Robinson, Amy Dujon, and Margaret Graney, “Exploring New Frontiers for K–12 Systems Transformation,” UVA Partnership for Leaders in Education (February 2023).