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A Road Map for System Transformation

Late last week, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, my shop at AEI released briefs by eight of the most interesting thinkers around when it comes to rethinking the contours of K-12 schooling (you can find them all here). In these pieces, which together offer up a bold, interlocking strategy, the authors sketch out the practical system design suggestions that often get set aside as we focus alternately on big concepts or on implementation tactics. The pieces all embrace a "sector agnostic" approach; they focus on figuring out how educational, municipal, and state leaders can support schools, cultivate great teaching, and police quality whether we're talking about district schools, charter schools, online providers, or schools participating in publicly funded scholarship programs.

The briefs include pieces by NSNO's Neerav Kingsland on what it takes to do a turnaround system right; Harvard Center for Education Policy Research honcho Jon Fullerton on how to build a dynamic data infrastructure; Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, on how to rethink professional development delivery; Fordham VP Mike Petrilli on how to do quality control for various kinds of current and emerging school models; and so on.

The papers were authored with an eye to how they could be pursued by decision-makers in a particular community. We asked our authors to suggest how their insights might apply to Milwaukee, for reasons that my project co-director, Seton Hall's Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, and I explained recently in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel op-ed. We observed: "As much as any city in America, Milwaukee has played a pioneering role in educational choice. More than two decades after establishing the nation's first urban school voucher program, Milwaukee offers families a raft of options, including district schools, charter schools and publicly funded private school scholarships. Yet, this dramatic expansion of options has not yet translated into dramatic improvement... This should be cause for renewed energy, not despair."

We noted, "After all, the Milwaukee Public Schools district has displayed a willingness to find ways to turn around struggling schools and to tackle long-standing fiscal challenges. Milwaukee's charter school authorizers have shown themselves willing to hold low-performing schools accountable. Schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program increasingly have embraced accountability for performance. Across all three sectors, there are instances of high-performing schools where even Milwaukee's most challenged pupils can excel."

The point of the road map exercise is to push beyond the familiar "reform" conventions, eschewing familiar enthusiasms that can color the world of school reform. Reformers, for instance, can wax enthusiastic about merit pay, while leaving intact notions of the teacher's job description, school staffing and the organization of instruction. These efforts ignore the fact that yesterday's structures are ill-suited for today's ambitions.

Our contributors adopt a different mind-set: that transformation requires revisiting the basic building blocks of schooling. Together, they consider the interlocking pieces of any city's educational ecosystem, including teaching, management, new school formation, technology, resource allocation, quality control, research and data collection, and explore how this might be rethought. They explain how all the interested parties, from state officials to city hall to private philanthropies, can help do their part.

What's notable and different about this effort, we hope and suggest, is that we are offering neither an airy vision nor sugarplum promises. The recommendations offer no miracle cures. They can, though, help to create the kinds of schools where great educators thrive, get the support they need and are held accountable in more sensible and appropriate ways. Civic and educational leaders can help make that happen.

We think the contributors here have directions that can help guide them along the way.

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