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Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Emerging Third Way: Hosted by Empower Schools

Why was this free, two-hour session at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art a useful take for a School Committee member in a high-performing, suburban district? Key players in education policy and practice hosted, moderated, commented, opined, and followed. The direction of education in our state was on display this morning; and the laws, regulations, and money that will attend school districts in the future were on the table.

In the house: public school districts, think tank folks, charter proponents, teacher’s union reps, Jt. Ed. Committee Co-chairs Chang-Diaz and Peisch, MASC, and others. People in the room acknowledged that the demographic of the audience was not reflective of the public school demographic.

ICA Director Jill Medvedow opened, referencing this morning’s NPR segment on refugees who had been shipwrecked due to overcrowding. She noted that students today don’t have the boats to carry them and they are traveling over large oceans. “Boats must be strong and the ocean must be navigable.”

A brief video showcased the intention of The Third Way, indicating that we should embrace the “and” and not the “or;” and that the Third Way is about synergy and progress, building schools, and bold steps.

Empower Schools Managing Partner Brendan Lessy thanked the sponsors (MassINC and The Boston Foundation), identified the intent around taking “the best” from charters to address systemic problems, and said that the Third Way is not a destination, but a mindset.

MASSInc’s Research Director Ben Forman spoke to “a rapidly changing economy,” that Gateway cities have enormously innovative leaders and teachers, and that charters and traditional publics should be linked together.

MA Secretary of Education Jim Peyser said that we think of him as the “charter guy,” said he is a staunch supporter of charter schools, and noted that schools, not districts, are units of change. He “doesn’t mean state agencies and the federal government don’t matter, but they establish the conditions in which locals can thrive.” To thrive, he says schools need world class assessments so they can measure student learning; quality data; a pipeline of effective leaders; transparent, predictable, sustainable finances; and the authority to act and accountability for results. Getting all conditions right is the challenge and authority and accountability is reason for charters. Empowering school leadership is critical because the opposite removes personal responsibility. To complement that criterion, we must empower parents (who should not be locked into a school option based on zip code). The traditional way typically disadvantages children of color. Charters are one solution, not necessarily the only solution. There are only 81 charter schools in the state and he “think[s] we can do better after the cap is lifted in November.” All students need equitable access to quality schools. Sharing services and reallocating resources is critical.

CEO of Empower Schools Chris Gabrieli spoke to the Third Way being additive, outside the comfort zone of charters. It includes universal access, accountability, and an empowerment culture. It has three prongs: convergence of powerful practices, alignment and integration of district and charter alignment (as in Denver), and Third Way zones (rules for clusters of schools that are different from district schools). Each zone is a particular cohort of schools. Zones are different in different places for innovation and efficiency. Each cohort has independent board (that includes a SC member) but the majority of the oversight board is independent. Two critical agreements come into play: a zone has an agreement with a district but authority to make decisions, and the union stays (collective bargaining with “crucial freedoms.”). Blazing the Third Way is collaborative and voluntary; builds on the best locally and beyond (i.e. not everyone must go since keeping the best and veteran district educators can play a key part); centers on personalization at every level; and has the potential for replication and scale. “The Third Way is broad river with large tributaries.”

Featured panels (“Charter School Leaders on the Move to District Schools,” “The Lawrence Experience,” “Innovations in Boston and Denver,” “Springfield’s Empowerment,” and “Principals Breaking Through”) related stories around the impact of Third Way work. Some comments:
·               The platform should be the same for all schools: health and safety, creating a sense of pride and belonging, and offering a broad set of extra-curriculars and opportunities for self-actualization (in the form of academic rigor).
·               Faces in the school building don’t always mirror those in the classroom so if we’re going to improve, we have to empower communities to help.
·               51% of American children are living at or near the poverty line. Lawrence is seeking invested and committed teachers and leaders to employ a culture that promotes education.
·               Keys to success are leadership, data, relationships with community organizations, and the courage to fight bitter battles.
·               The importance of governance in each school (as in many BPS now) reflects work and trust with the teacher’s union.
·               We are now in a long-term transition focused on choice, competition, accountability, and results.
·               Students who face abject poverty need to partner with caring adults and there need to be opportunities for the whole child.
·               Teachers and principals need to “own the work,” because “when someone else makes the decisions for you, it’s easier to blame someone else.”

Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester said that nationally there has been limited success on district turnaround but he is convinced that we can do better by students in challenged MA districts. The goals are to improve education for students and districts, and establish “proof points and practices that will inform district reforms” by identifying time, staffing, budget, collective bargaining (including compensation that is designed to give teachers at the building level to turn schools around). As the charter debate goes forward this fall, he would like to see more charters recruited to help open new schools and take on some turnaround schools.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz shared that in travel in the state and her own district, she has heard very little about this path and hears little about it on Beacon Hill. The 51% poverty rate is a huge issue and we “don’t have the luxury of civil war.” Parents in the divide don’t care what school their child attends, they just want quality options, asking “please do right by both my [traditional and charter school] children.” With the RISEAct, it is possible to do this.

Representative Alice Peisch said that there is “no question that the top priority from the legislature is to close the achievement gap. Both districts and charters have been successful. Acrimonious debate is not particularly helpful.” The challenge on Beacon Hill is to shift the debate to showcase successes that they’ve seen. She’s an optimist who believes that the debate should be focused on what produces results, and constantly hears in the legislature about flexibilities and autonomies, and they’ve passed bills that contain them. She’s concerned about the best interest of students and what guarantees access to very high quality education.

US Secretary of Education John B. King (speaking with Chris Gabrieli) explained that we need wide curriculum, good school culture, and a whole community vested in outcomes. Having more time is critical (longer school day, summer, etc.). From personal experience, he’s noted that accountability must be real. In some places there is a proliferation of low performing charters. Kids just want a good school. It’s powerful to hear about schools that are safe, structured, and engaging.  School was a place he could be a kid when home wasn’t that place. School is a place of possibility. Students who get a strong well-rounded education are better readers. (Reading not just about vocabulary but is more about knowledge of the world.) Science, social studies, etc. are worthy pursuits on their own allowing students to be good citizens in a demographic society, pursue careers, and have an appreciation for beauty. High quality education is a right. In NCLB, there was so much emphasis on ELA and math; they are necessary but not sufficient. ESSE gives a new set of tools to do more. It broadens the definition of educational excellence. Acknowledging reading and math is important, but what about absenteeism? (The state could factor that into accountability.) What about access to AP and IB and early college? (The state could factor that in.) ESSA provides the possibility to factor in different measures and indicators of college and career readiness. Another opportunity for states is the room to provide different interventions (e.g. create dual language context). A lot of progress has been made. The US now has the highest graduation rate in its history. There has been a reduction in dropout rates. More black and Latino students are going to college. Investments have been made in early childhood education, and there is a new bipartisan law, ESSA. At the same time, we have to maintain an incredible sense of urgency around outcomes. The US is now 13th in the world in college completion. MA still has a 30-40% achievement gap. We need to keep working.