Bridging the Opportunity Divide

3 Top Educators Share Their Secrets to Successful School Reform

March 11, 2015
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3 Top Educators Share Their Secrets to Successful School Reform
Teacher support and participation is crucial for education reform to succeed. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
If every district followed this advice, education would improve.

For education reform to succeed, there’s one thing it must have: buy-in from teachers. No matter how visionary the school overhaul is, it will never reach students without employees’ consent. In light of a recent Gallup survey finding that 70 percent of K-12 teachers aren’t actively engaged, how can the most promising changes build wider support? NationSwell asked three high-profile educators to weigh in. Here’s what they had to say.

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HAVE ADVOCATES OUTSIDE THE SUPERINTENDENT’S OFFICE
Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, said her goal from day one was doing “the job right for the city’s children,” even if it meant she “would upset the status quo.” Which is exactly what she did. Rhee, now chairman of the St. Hope public charter school system, “quickly” (her word) decided to shutter two dozen schools, cut the administrative district office in half, instituted new evaluations, bargained with the union to undo tenure and rewrote the math and reading curriculum. These changes “provoked community outrage” and “caused turmoil in the district” (again, her words), but she says the improved test scores and higher enrollment made the changes worth it.

Today, Rhee (who left the D.C. district five years ago) reflects on how she could have acted differently; she wants the most engaged teachers to be on her side. “Anytime you are working on something that will impact classrooms, reformers need to go to stakeholders,” Rhee tells NationSwell. “Parents will want to understand what the changes mean.… Principals and administrators need to understand the role they will play in managing the instructional program. The community will want to understand how the modifications will result in better schooling for the next generation. But it will always be teachers who will be asked to actually implement the change, making them the most important group,” Rhee says. Engaged teachers will not only incorporate their experience into a program’s development, they will also bring fellow colleagues onboard, which will “ultimately determine the success — or failure — of any initiative,” she adds.

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LISTEN, THEN ADAPT

As superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), Karen Garza oversees a network of 196 schools in the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. One of her biggest issues ahead is managing the budget. “When meeting and talking with employees around the country, and when embarking on my listening tours, I have heard repeatedly how important it is for FCPS to stay competitive in the region with employee salaries,” she says. “Organizations change and evolve, and it was apparent that our needs had changed.” In other words, listening also must translate into meaningful modifications. In January, Garza compiled all she’d heard into a comprehensive $70 million plan to boost employee salaries, while making up the difference in cuts to health insurance, utility costs and employee turnover.

“I understand there is always a little trepidation when a new leader arrives and I am mindful of the tremendous history of excellence that exists in Fairfax,” Garza adds. “However, even with greatest systems, it is necessary to embrace the notion of continuous improvement.”

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NEVER STOP COMMUNICATING
Mike Miles, the superintendent of Dallas Independent School District who’s a fast-rising figure in the education reform movement, sums up his advice succinctly: The “best way to build consensus and buy-in” is to “communicate clearly and often,” he says. “This means you avoid placing an artificial cap on your communication efforts and continually seek avenues to convey your message in a focused and clear manner.” In Dallas, they’ve been doing just that as they roll out the Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI), a new system of merit compensation that’s replacing the decades-old pay ladders that dole out salaries based on seniority. “Obviously, this major shift takes teachers out of their familiar comfort zone, so communication has been key to creating an understanding of the process,” he says. Miles held staff meetings at every campus, convened a teachers’ task force and shared details with all employees through a website, one-sheet handouts and email newsletter — all before the school board even took a vote to approve the initiative.

Now that the program is underway, Miles continues to ask a panel of expert teachers for their advice on continual improvements, and he’s continuing to share success stories on a news website, The HUB. He believes these two measures “have reduced fears of the program and allowed our teachers to view the initiative favorably,” he says. Overall, “by not placing artificial limits on our communication, we are making TEI a successful project our teachers and community can support.”

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