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Create More Innovation Schools

The nation is embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not to reopen public schools this fall. Governors facing fresh outbreaks are rightly reluctant to act in haste, while President Trump has threatened to withhold federal aid to districts that don’t open on schedule. Everyone wants to see their kids get back to school when it’s safe. But the deeper question is how to make our public schools more resilient against this still unfolding crisis—and more adaptable as other challenges arise in the future.

The pandemic posed a revealing test of our adaptability. Too many school systems reacted slowly and had trouble finding effective ways to deliver remote education (and food) to their students. In other places, such as New Orleans, districts and schools were remarkably nimble. Our goal should not be just returning to the status quo ante COVID, as Trump insists, but building a more nimble, adaptable way of organizing public education in America.

How bad was it this spring? By April 3, three weeks after school districts began shutting down, 76 percent of the 82 districts studied by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) still provided no instruction to students. More distressing, by May 22 a third of them provided no instruction.

But even that finding was overly optimistic. In a later study of 477 districts, a statistically representative sample of all districts, “We found just one in three districts expect teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement, or monitor academic progress for all students—fewer districts than our initial study suggested,” CRPE reported. “Far too many districts are leaving learning to chance during the coronavirus closures.” Since “school districts in affluent communities are twice as likely as their peers in more economically disadvantaged communities to expect teachers to deliver real-time lessons to groups of students,” many students in poorer communities “were unlikely to receive consistent instruction in spring 2020.”

The most damning finding: “Only 14.5 percent of school districts with the highest concentration of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch expect teachers to provide live instruction.”

National student surveys reflected the same disappointing reality: 41 percent of teens had not attended any online or virtual classes; 78 percent reported spending only one to four hours per day on online learning; 32 percent reported two hours or less; and nearly one in four said they were connecting with their teachers less than once a week. “In a survey by YouthTruth, only half of students say that while schools were closed their teachers gave them assignments that really helped them learn, and just 39 percent say they learned a lot every day,” reports CRPE Director Robin Lake. “According to YouthTruth, only 50 percent of students say they were able to focus on learning and only 41 percent said they were motivated to do schoolwork.”

CRPE found more rapid adaptation when it studied the responses of 18 charter management organizations (CMOs), which operate networks of public charter schools. By April 3 44 percent of these CMOs were providing instruction and monitoring student progress, and by May 22 only 17 percent still provided no instruction. Yet charter schools have higher percentages of low-income and minority students, who are less likely to have computers and internet access at home, than districts. CRPE found that CMOs quickly redefined teachers roles and responsibilities to fit the new reality—using teacher leaders for each grade to lead the redesign of instruction, record sample lessons, and organize professional development for other teachers, for instance.

Unlike district schools, charters control their own operations; they are not subject to most state and district rules. While district principals and teachers are constrained by bureaucratic rules and collective bargaining agreements, most charter leaders and teachers can pivot quickly when necessary. On the other hand, districts (and larger CMOs) had the resources to purchase and distribute computers and hotspots quickly, a big advantage. To adapt to remote learning effectively, in other words, school systems needed strong central offices capable of marshaling resources but decentralized operation of schools, so principals and teachers could quickly implement remote education.

Perhaps the best example was New Orleans, where every public school is a charter. Within three school days of the closure, more than half the schools were handing out free meals. By May 20 schools and the district, working together, had distributed over a million meals to students and families. Within three weeks of closure, the district had procured thousands of laptops and hotspots, which it then delivered to schools for distribution to those who needed them.

“By March 23, the beginning of the second week of school building closures, at least 97% of New Orleans public schools had begun providing their students with some form of physical and/or digital educational resources to continue learning,” reports New Schools for New Orleans. “Responses to a Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) survey in mid-April show that teachers at 100 percent of New Orleans schools were reaching out to their students across all grade levels at least weekly. Teachers at approximately 90 percent of New Orleans schools were providing students in all grades with feedback on their work. Roughly 80 percent of schools were delivering at least some instruction of new content across all grade levels, as opposed to solely providing assignments in which students review and practice material taught previously.”

This pandemic will not be the last time our school systems need such resilience. Hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks, future pandemics, fiscal crises and more lie in our future. We need school systems capable of rapid adaptation to new conditions: systems with lean but capable central offices that can steer well but empowered school leaders and teachers who can row —i.e. operate schools—effectively.

This combination is possible in a system of charter schools, whether it is a district like New Orleans or a CMO. But it is also possible with district schools that are given charter-like autonomy, often called “innovation schools,” “partnership schools,” “pilot schools,” or “renaissance schools.”

While these schools should be given significant autonomy, so their leaders can make key hiring, budgetary, and management decisions usually reserved for the central office, they must also be held accountable for their performance. Not all autonomous schools will succeed, particularly with low-income students, so districts need to weed out the failures, replacing them with stronger operators. With autonomy must come accountability.

More than a dozen school districts across the nation are converting significant numbers of their schools to this model. The best approach, in our view, is that of Indianapolis Public Schools, which has converted a third of its schools to nonprofit organizations with full autonomy and five-year performance agreements. They are called “innovation network schools,” and they include restarts of failing schools, new startups, conversions of district schools, and conversions of charter schools. Since they were launched five years ago, they have been the fastest improving group of schools in the district.

To be ready for the next crisis, states should create incentives for districts to do this, both carrots and sticks. Many states have sticks already: when a district school is rated failing for four, five, or six years, some states can close the school, hand it to a charter operator, and/or appoint a new school board. But Texas has shown how effective it can be to add carrots. There, districts that recruit nonprofit organizations to operate “partnership schools” receive about $1,000 per student per year in extra funding for those schools.

Other states should pass similar legislation. (PPI is preparing an extensive report outlining the most effective methods to do this, complete with model legislation.) With President Biden’s leadership, Congress should enact and his education department should implement a financial incentive to encourage states to pass such legislation and districts to implement it. President Obama’s Race to the Top showed how effective financial incentives can be, particularly when states face fiscal crises. By devoting as little as $2-3 billion to challenge grants for states that empower and encourage their districts to shift toward a more decentralized model, the federal government could speed up a transition that is already underway but moving far too slowly. In today’s world of rapid change, extraordinary technologies, and growing inequality, we need nimble, decentralized public systems full of innovative, empowered school leaders and teachers.

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