An Interview with Rick Hess and Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj: Blueprint for School System Transformation

Oct 1, 2013 by

by Bryan Barnes and Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) What are some of the main themes that you are trying to address?

Well-intentioned reformers in Milwaukee, like so many others across the country, have too often layered innovative approaches onto antiquated systems with disappointing results. What we present in the volume is a vision for long-lasting reform that’s better suited for the new demands and possibilities of the 21st century.

Our vision is built upon eight interconnected “pillars”: new school delivery, quality control, a recovery school district, professional development, human capital management, resource use, data collection, and effective governance. We’ve engaged experts in the field to painstakingly dissect each pillar and name concrete steps that leaders—in education, business, and politics—must undertake to achieve true transformation. Discussed in the abstract, our eight pillars may seem intangible or tough to pin down. For that reason, we’ve asked the contributors to apply their thinking to one district, Milwaukee, in order to sketch out the particulars of what their proposals might look like in practice.

2) Are certain “pillars” more important than others when it comes to transformational system reform?

Sometimes, when you listen to plans for school reform, it sounds like there’s one right answer. Some might suggest they key is doing a better job of recruiting and retaining terrific teachers. Others will call for more school choice. Still others lobby for more technology, more professional development, or more rigorous standards.

At one level, they’re all right. At a deeper level, the obvious truth is that transforming a school requires not this or that change—but a more fundamental reconstruction. What makes our volume different is the recognition that our eight pillars are co-dependent; for a school, district, teacher, or leader to realize the full potential of each pillar, it must be designed and used in tandem with other reforms that support and reinforce its goals.

3) Is your blueprint a more broad way of educational reform or is it specific to large cities with big school districts?

Our premise can be applied universally: reformers, policy-makers and school leaders must reimagine the institution of schooling and its potential to look, operate, and perform in ways vastly different from what it is today. Though contributors used Milwaukee as a case study in order to demonstrate the effects of particular strategies, their recommendations can apply elsewhere. Due to resource limitations or differing needs, some specific proposals, like establishing a research consortium, might not be realistic for smaller districts. Yet they can adapt this proposal for their own context; smaller districts can join together and create a shared consortium, for example.

4) How does your blueprint address some of the persistent difficulties school systems have finding, supporting, and retaining quality teachers?

Several of our contributors address this issue. Former human resources executive, Ranjit Nair, offers some strategies to improve talent management in educational systems. His chapter specifically outlines the benefits of rethinking teacher recruitment, training, and career ladders. He points to countries with more rigorous screening processes for teachers and proposes that states consider adopting similar measures.

In another chapter, Doug Lemov, best-selling author of Teach Like a Champion, details a radical new way of thinking about and organizing professional development. It’s important to remember, though, that within our vision efforts to increase teacher quality would occur along with other structural changes like redesigned classrooms, different student-teacher ratios, and/or a possible overhaul of the major responsibilities of educators in the classroom.

5) Realizing and recognizing the history behind the approaches to school reform is important. Do you think that policymakers and system leaders lack the knowledge and understanding or do they misinterpret how our education system is?

Neither. Policymakers and leaders are under tremendous pressure to show improvements in education in a short amount of time. And, they are ultimately held accountable by a voting public and/or a school board. As a result, decisions aren’t always made based on what might be best in the long term for student achievement, actual learning, and the efficiency of the school system. Ambitious, innovative and new approaches to education may therefore seem too risky or unfamiliar to the people in positions to adopt them. In this book we present an alternate view of schools and systems as evolving institutions charged with helping to provide students with schooling—rather than as inviolate and static places charged with the entirety of teaching and learning. We believe there are vast opportunities to separate the components of that package and customize them to better suit student needs, and we offer leaders and policy-makers a roadmap for how to strategically, responsibly pursue changes that have potential to do more than tinker at the margins.

6) With Common Core in place for some states, is this curriculum approach within your blueprint?

We don’t discuss a curriculum approach per se. Rather, the reform pillars, strategies, and policy changes we describe are intended to create the conditions for the best teaching and learning possible to take place. We start from the premise that many of the existing structures, policies, and practices in districts nation-wide are outdated and limit the possibilities for innovations in curriculum and pedagogy to fulfill their promise. The book addresses those structural and policy elements.

7) What about technology? Can it be used? Or do teachers simply need way too much training in this realm?

Technology can be a very powerful tool to dramatically improve delivery of education, increase student engagement, and enhance a host of other aspects of the schooling process. In the volume, Michael Horn and his colleague Meg Evans from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation discuss ways in which districts and schools can strategically incorporate technology to facilitate greater educational customization for students. While it should not be treated as a cure-all, technology can be a critical tool for enabling real educational transformation.

8) What have we neglected to ask?

Whose job is it to do all this work and bring about change? Each of the pillars requires some form of state or local action. Some of the proposed measures call for formal policy change, while many require little more than the willingness of local officials, district leaders, or philanthropists to act boldly. Ranging from new school formation to issues of talent management and spending, the ideas presented in this volume depend on work both inside and outside the existing institutional confines. Thus, we call for a broad coalition of actors at every level of the system, from the state legislature down to the school building.

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