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Education Reform: Competing and Winning with Collaboration

Alan Blankstein, CEO and Founder of the HOPE Foundation, is back with a guest blog. Today he describes real reform that is sustainable because it focuses on collaboration not confrontation.

"Faulty evidence and unwarranted claims."

Not the strongest foundation for a major push of government policy, but that's what the National Education Policy Center says about the rationale for significant efforts aimed at school turnarounds in recent years.

In a report issued last week, NEPC said federal mandates for school improvement funding that include removing teachers and principals have little basis in research, are largely "an extension of the (No Child Left Behind) market-based approach," and were implemented without input from educators or the families and communities involved.

It's an interesting report and deserves to be closely read, but I have a slightly different take on the policies surrounding school improvement and their implementation.

There has never been a time in the history of public education in our nation so filled with opportunity to close persistent learning gaps and raise student achievement. The spotlight placed on low-achieving schools by the government and the resources applied to the work are perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us to make a truly game-changing impact on the future of public schools for millions of students.

Is it market-based and competitive, sometimes relying on unproven theories of change? No question. But it's exactly in that roil of activity that real, replicable and systemic improvement will stand out and shine brightest. As NEPC and others have rightly pointed out, some entities take this opportunity for purely commercial gain. Yet others are elevating teachers, partnering with families and communities and rolling up sleeves district by district to scale best practices across entire districts and beyond. At the HOPE Foundation, we recognize that every school has pockets of leadership and excellence. We build leadership communities within and between schools and districts such that these pockets of excellence become the norm, student achievement is sustained, failure is no longer an option. We have a proven track record of creating school and district-wide leadership teams that consistently close learning gaps among students while enhancing overall school, teacher and student achievement.

Since our work began in Alton, IL in 2001, we've helped scale success in districts within 38 states, Canada and South Africa where an entire province benefitted from the process. Most recently, we completed the work in 51 schools in Fort Wayne; 40 schools in Mansfield, TX; and have expanded to work within a cluster of 175 schools in NYC, as a result of helping several of them go from D to A status.

We're not alone in embracing this competitive drive to prove that collaboration not confrontation is the key to school improvement.

Two quick examples among many: The American Association of School Administrators is an organization steeped in collaborative efforts to close the achievement gaps, to effectively use data, to build and network school and district leaders, and join with entire school communities to focus on the whole child. The National Education Association, some three million strong created a separate cadre called the Priority Schools Campaign to help educators, communities and school districts effectively collaborate on the use of school improvement resources.

There are no guarantees this new public school marketplace of ideas will weed out the ineffective and politically divisive activity from real school improvement. In many ways, it seems to have actually fostered it. That's why so much of the focus of the HOPE Foundation and our partners is on scaling what works, turning classrooms of success into district, state and national networks. Competition over methods and measurement in the new marketplace of public education is here to stay and many of us who are passionate and committed to working in and raising up the most seriously struggling schools and students are "in it to win it." Our children and our future is at stake. Game on.

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