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74 Interview: Progressive Policy Institute’s David Osborne on Creating New Innovation Schools Guide at a Moment of Crisis

By Mimi Woldeyohannes | December 13, 2020

Author David Osborne describes Denver Green School as “one of the best teacher-run schools” he’s visited. The school focuses on environmental education and is run by a 10-teacher partnership team. (Denver Green School/Facebook)

See previous 74 Interviews: Author Jal Mehta on the value of teaching, journalist Paul Tough on class, race and the pursuit of college, Professor Rucker Johnson on how school integration helped black students and the full archive of 74 interviews.

As our public education system continues to experience unprecedented challenges related to the pandemic, the Progressive Policy Institute’s David Osborne and Tressa Pankovits thought now would be a good time to offer a how-to guide on creating innovation schools.

In this 74 Interview, Osborne acknowledges that many districts are barely managing to operate — never mind innovate — during a crisis that also involves a collapsing economy and a national reckoning on race. But the author of 2017’s Reinventing America’s Schools sees a not-too-distant future when a vaccine is widely available, the system has begun to return to some level of normalcy and education leaders will have to consider fresh solutions to the fallout.

“At that point, we’re going to have a lot of frustrated parents who have seen up close that their kids are not getting the kind of education they need,” Osborne said. “Hopefully, district leaders will be looking for ways to accelerate progress and help their schools catch up because their kids will have lost ground and have fallen further behind grade level.”

In Osborne’s and Pankovits’s recently released The Third Way: A Guide to Implementing Innovation Schools, the co-authors draw lessons from the experiences of “Innovation Network Schools” in Indianapolis, “Renaissance Schools” in Camden, New Jersey and other districts. They discuss key “success factors,” lay out implementation steps, and include model state legislation to allow and encourage districts to create such schools.

The common thread for innovation school is their ability to operate independently of the central office bureaucracy.

“The data on this is really clear. If we’re just talking about public schools in urban communities, the more autonomy they’re given — as long as it goes with accountability — the more effective they are,” Osborne said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Your research indicates that innovation schools and zones have the flexibility necessary to create and replicate an assortment of diverse learning models. Why do you think this concept is important in our current education systems? 

Osborne: It’s important that in any education system, the people who actually run a school — principals, other administrators and often teachers— are usually involved in making decisions of the school and those same people need to be able to make the key decisions. They know the kids and they know what their needs are. Taking cookie-cutter approaches that come down from the central offices just doesn’t work for all schools. So, most people assume that a principal of a public school has a lot of power. The truth is they don’t. Typically in an urban district, they can’t pick their teachers. The teachers get assigned to them by the central office. Additionally, they can’t fire anyone who’s got tenure (which happens after two or three years teaching in some districts), affect the pay scale at all, reward anyone, or even change the length of the school day or the school year. If kids are falling behind, they can’t implement Saturday morning school sessions for them, and the list goes on and on. They control typically less than 1 percent of the budget. So they really aren’t managers, they’re administrators. When you have kids in front of you who aren’t going to succeed in the “cookie-cutter school”, which is often the case in the inner-city with low-income kids, the people running the school need data and they need to do things differently. If we continue on with the centralized, hierarchical, standardized approach that most urban districts take, we’re just tying those principals’ and teachers’ hands and frankly, they can’t be as effective as they need to be. And in return, the people who suffer are the kids. So it’s really an equity issue and a justice issue.

In your guide, it’s interesting that you recommended that education leaders should encourage teacher-run schools in their innovation schools portfolio. Can you tell us a bit more about how teacher-led schools contributed to student achievement overall? 

Researcher and professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Richard Ingersoll, has done extensive research on this and basically what he finds is that the more empowered teachers are to help run the school, the more effective the school is on average. In our research, I visited several teacher-run schools, some charter and some innovation schools. One of the best teacher-run schools I’ve visited is called the Denver Green School, a public elementary school in Denver, Colorado. There are now two of them because they have replicated. The word “green” in the school’s title means it has a significant focus on environmental education. The school is run by 10 teachers who basically make up a partnership team and the other teachers are essentially employees of the partnership team, but if they want to join the partnership team they can apply. It’s pretty much organized like a law firm where you have partners who run the practice and they also pick who’s going to handle personnel, the budget, etc. At Denver Green School, the partners assign tasks to different teachers and when I was there, they had two or three administrators who taught half time and worked half time on administration stuff. I’ve seen teacher-run schools where every teacher is equal and while they choose a few administrators to do the administrative tasks, they make decisions collectively.

There are really no traditional symbols; there are just lots of different models. There are approximately 150 teacher-run schools across the country, where half or more are charter schools and the rest are district schools.

 Amid the global pandemic, education leaders, practitioners and stakeholders are having more conversations around re-imagining education. Moving forward, do you think more districts across the country will be amenable to implementing innovation schools? 

I think so. There was certainly some momentum before the pandemic where approximately 20 urban districts around the country were either deeply into this or experimenting with it in one form or another. It takes different forms in different places, depending on the local politics and the local leadership and so on. But the pandemic made it obvious to all of us and particularly the parents, that many public schools and public school districts were not able to pivot very quickly or very effectively to remote learning. It was a huge challenge to say the least. If you have a system where teachers and administrators were accustomed to not making many decisions or not being in charge and just following orders from the central office, they’re not going to be in the habit of rethinking how they could work quickly and effectively and the system won’t have drawn the kind of talent that likes to do that. If you want entrepreneurial people running your schools, you have to give them a lot of autonomy, and if you haven’t done that in the past, you’re not going to have those people in position.

Additionally, I recently saw a survey of charter school parents which indicated that on average, charter schools have responded more rapidly and more effectively to the shift toward remote learning than district schools, and that’s certainly what we’ve seen anecdotally.

On the flip side, are you afraid the pandemic and school closures could have a huge setback? Especially considering that many districts are presumably going to be focused on just reopening and delivering the basics, not necessarily looking to innovate or try something new. 

Yes, I think at the moment since March, discussions of sort of major structural changes in school districts that could have a real impact on student learning have been paused because the pandemic has been such a huge challenge. I think they will continue to be paused until a lot of the kids have been vaccinated and we can go back to some version of normal, but at that point, we’re going to have a lot of frustrated parents who have seen up close that their kids are not getting the kind of education they need. Hopefully, district leaders will be looking for ways to accelerate progress and help their schools catch up because their kids will have lost ground and have fallen further behind grade level.

The data on this is really clear. If we’re just talking about public schools in urban communities, the more autonomy they’re given — as long as it goes with accountability — the more effective they are. When you examine the districts that have improved the fastest in the last 15 years, statistically they’re located in New Orleans, Washington D.C., Chicago and Denver—all of them have done it through different kinds of autonomous schools. In New Orleans, you have all charter schools and in Washington, D.C. charter schools that make up 47 percent of the schools, but in Chicago and Denver, a lot of them are autonomous district schools, that are often referred to as innovation schools, contract schools or some other moniker. So, it’s not like there’s a debate about the data. We know that this works better for urban kids and hopefully more of our district leaders will be looking for what works better once this COVID era is over.

Can you talk about some of the challenges associated with the innovation schools model?

I would say the biggest challenges are political. The minute you say that school leaders, whether they are principals or a group of teachers, should have the power to hire and fire, the teachers unions will oppose it because they consider that one of their jobs is to keep any members from being fired and they typically fight any effort to remove teachers who have proven to be not competent.

On top of that, in any bureaucratic system, when you say to some of the units, we’re going to give you a lot of autonomy, the rest of the system typically reacts negatively. It’s a very human reaction, “What are we? Chopped liver? Those guys are special and we’re not?” Also, the central office almost always resists this because the people who work there have been trained and have developed over many years, a view that certain decisions should be made by the central office, and not by the schools themselves. So if they’re in the purchasing department, it’s their job to buy the textbooks and choose the textbooks. If they’re in the transportation department, it’s their job to do the bus schedules, which drives the length of school day. If they’re in the professional development unit, it’s their job to figure out what the teachers need and the way to predict professional development. When you give schools autonomy, they are able to make all those decisions and that both runs up against the mentality of central offices.

It also is inconvenient for the central offices because now they have two sets of rules. You’re dealing with the traditional schools with one set of rules and then there’s a whole different set of rules with the autonomous schools. For instance, in some cases, the money for things like professional development goes to the autonomous schools and they get to decide where they spend it. Suddenly, the central office loses some of its budget and it needs to respond to these school leaders and what they think they need. In places like Denver, San Antonio and many others, it’s been a struggle because it often takes years to convert the mentality of the central office and that process is still going on in those districts and others.

You argue that states should have both an intervention law (the stick), and innovation school legislation (the carrot). When implementing innovation schools, how can education leaders get buy-in from all stakeholders within their educational communities to avoid any pushback? Where have you seen this done well? 

So let’s talk about different stakeholders and let’s start with teachers. There are a number of ways to get teachers to buy into the innovation schools model, but I think the best way is through teacher-powered schools. For example, in Springfield, Massachusetts, which has an empowerment zone of 11 schools now, each of those schools has a leadership team of five teachers, one who is elected by the principal and four who are elected by the teachers, and they work with the principal on the plan for the next year, every year. They are part of the decision-making about the future direction of the school, and that’s attractive to educators. They also like autonomy because let’s face it, most teachers know that their schools are kind of in a bureaucratic, straightjacket and they would like more autonomy.

The other thing that’s been effective is that a lot of places use innovation schools just to turn around failing schools. In Indianapolis, you can also become an innovation school by being a strong district school where the teachers want to convert to innovation status because they want that autonomy. Last I counted, there were five out of 20 or 21 innovation schools that were conversion schools and now there are 26 innovation schools. From what I’ve heard, the teachers there are the biggest cheerleaders of this concept. They’re people who have been district teachers that were a part of the unions, so they have credibility with their colleagues. Innovation schools can be used to not only convert failing schools, but also for strong schools who are just converting with the same teachers into an innovation school status.

With families, I think the lesson that everyone has learned is that if you’re going to start an innovation school or close down a district school to reopen an innovation school in that same building, in any of those cases, you have to go to the community. It’s important to talk with families, document the problems with the failing school, and introduce them to the new leaders of the new organization that’s going to run the school. It’s also important for those leaders to make a tremendous effort to reach out to the families. If they come from an organization that runs other schools, the leaders should offer to take the families to those other schools to see what they’re like. That will open a lot of parents’ eyes very quickly. If they say, “Well, I’ve seen what my kid’s school is like and this school is three times better,” that’s exciting. You can win over parents. It’s not that hard, but so often in public education, I guess because of the traditions of school systems, we don’t do that. We don’t try. We’ve had systems that just assume the parents are passive and once their kids get assigned to school, that’s it. They have to show up. We have to break that habit and become much more proactive about really selling these new schools to parents on their merits.

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Those are two really key stakeholder groups and then you can talk about the business community because they have a clear financial and material interest in having a better educated workforce. They are usually pretty easy to convince, especially if you have the data about improving student performance.

How do you perceive the incoming Biden administration and its educational mindset as either hurting or helping the innovative schools movement?

I don’t think it will have a lot of impact. If the Biden administration were able to fulfill his campaign promises to dramatically increase Title I Funding for schools with lots of low- income kids, that would help a lot because money is important. I doubt they’re going to be able to because our deficits are just higher than they’ve ever been in history even. Our federal debt as a percentage of GDP is higher than it was at the end of World War II. The deficit is going to be a huge constraint on the Biden administration, regardless, and I assume the Republicans will control the Senate, which means they will have some control over the purse strings. So I’m skeptical that we will get that infusion of big new money. The Biden administration could decide to push innovation schools, we’re certainly hopeful that they’ll consider that.

Ultimately, there’s not a lot of appetite at the federal level for repeating something like Race to the Top, where they were being very proactive and trying to lead districts and states in one direction or another. I think there was such a backlash against the Common Core and evaluation of teachers, using at least 50 percent [of student] test scores [in teachers’ evaluations], both of which were part of Race to the Top, or were encouraged by that program. I think that backlash was so strong that the Biden administration will probably be fairly careful and not that active in trying to push state and local districts in any specific direction. While I would love it, I’m a little skeptical that they will encourage innovation schools. The truth is our education systems are run at the state level and the federal goal is fairly recent and fairly minor, so the battle is really at the state and local level going forward when it comes to autonomy and accountability for public schools.

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