Rochester schools: If all are empowered, none are empowered

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The report of Jaime Aquino, the “distinguished educator” appointed to study the operation of the Rochester City School District, reads like a doctor’s report of symptoms, but missing a diagnosis or cure.

Jaime Aquino

There were no surprises in the Aquino report. Observers and school leaders have long been aware of what isn’t working. Why can’t we fix what is so obviously broken?

The problem of poverty is outside the control of the schools, of course. Although poverty isn’t destiny, poverty is a proxy for a range of circumstances and influences that act as a headwind on student achievement.

Schools attended by students in poverty can be successful, however. There are other factors at work in the city school district that make change difficult. Five superintendents in 10 years says a lot. School leaders are like a coal mine’s canary—but instead of declaring an emergency, the leadership of this mine just cleans out the cage and brings in a new bird.

If there is a single barrier to district improvement, it is the diffusion of power, best exemplified by the short tenure of superintendents. It is hard to imagine systemic and lasting reform occurring without a near-miraculous level of collaboration among the many fiefdoms.

Power to change things for the better is finite: If all have power, none have power. The diffusion of power in the district is well-intentioned. We believe that empowerment brings engagement, engagement promotes ownership, ownership improves persistence and persistence achieves results.

• Students are empowered when we seek to create a learning environment that is fueled by students’ curiosity, instead of a rigid course of instruction.

• Parents are empowered through in-district school choice: We encourage them to seek the school that best suits the needs of the family and the student.

• Parents and teachers are empowered by school-based planning teams that are granted curricular autonomy.

• Teachers are empowered when principals have little time—or, in some cases, training—to supervise and coach.

• Teachers are empowered by seniority rules that limit the ability of principals to create and guide effective teams of teachers in a particular school.

• Principals are empowered by rules that insulate them from accountability other than re-assignment.

Well-intentioned empowerment of students, parents and teachers leaves little power for school leaders. No wonder superintendents—disempowered by teachers’ and administrators’ contracts, parental prerogatives, and an often-intrusive Board of Education—begin to look for the exits after a couple of years in this impossible job.

Parents, empowered to choose their child’s school, unintentionally destroy any connection between school and neighborhood. Some reformers point to the success of “community schools,” a promising model if students actually live near the school they attend. Some years ago I was given maps that plotted the address of every child by school. Astonishingly, the maps all look the same (see samples above). Every school draws from every neighborhood. This well-intentioned “school choice” policy empowers parents but takes away the power of a principal or community leader to establish a supportive learning environment in a neighborhood.

The power granted to teachers in individual schools to choose an academic subject’s “scope and sequence” makes student mobility—25 percent according to Aquino—far more damaging. Teachers empowered in one school or classroom take power away from teachers in another. The “receiving” teacher has to struggle to place the student’s needs in the new school’s scope and sequence.

Superintendents are dramatically disempowered by collective bargaining agreements, both for teachers and administrators. My Center for Governmental Research colleagues tell a revealing tale. Working for a prior superintendent, they were asked to coach a department’s staff on a data analysis task in which we were expert. They made an appointment. At the assigned hour they arrived to find the entire department in attendance, including the steward from the administrators’ union. After the suggestions were presented, the staff response was simple: “If the superintendent wants data presented differently, he can just fill out a data request like everyone else.”

During the same engagement, the superintendent told of a large contract with an outside firm that he’d directed be terminated, only to find a year later than it was still in force.

Central office staff are empowered when the short tenure of superintendents allow them to simply ignore directives they don’t like, confident that they simply need to wait for the inevitable falling-out between the superintendent and the Board of Education. All will be forgotten in the chaos that ensues with any transition.

What can be done?

Our experience of charter schools is instructive. That students in Rochester’s charter schools demonstrate higher achievement is a matter of record. The debate about charters turns on whether the tests are valid or if the schools simply “cherry pick” students who would have been high achievers anyway. I won’t relitigate the matter here (see Geoff Rosenberger’s essay, to be posted on Friday for more).

Do effective charter schools succeed simply because of what they do? That’s our reflexive assumption—it must be the curriculum or the teacher recruitment process or the school day or the uniforms or the disciplinary code or, or, or . . . The thesis of this essay is that a key problem in traditional public schools is the diffusion of power, leading to poor coordination and ineffective execution. A world-class curriculum for 4th grade math won’t be effective if it isn’t coordinated with the 3rd and 5th grade curricula.

This kind of problem is solvable in a charter context. Let me illustrate the impact of the model on power, however, by talking about the Uncommon Schools model (the Rochester Prep schools) as this is what I know best.

The Uncommon model devotes considerable attention to classroom management. Students who break their pencils lose the power to stop the flow of discussion as each teacher has pencils at the ready and students simply raise their broken one and get a replacement. Hand signals convey the need for a trip to the bathroom. Students are constantly encouraged to “keep your eyes on the speaker,” eroding their power to engage in side conversations or focus their attention elsewhere. Any classroom teacher in any school could adopt these practices, but this is a cultural shift that is best implemented schoolwide. Rigorous and consistent classroom management applied across an entire school shifts power from students to teachers.

Parents sign a contract to support the classroom. They retain the power to move their child to a new school but lose power around issues like attendance and homework.

Uncommon’s curriculum is not established classroom by classroom. Scope and sequence for every subject and grade are established collectively. Teachers lose power, but students gain consistency from classroom to classroom and from grade to grade.

Although teachers are public employees and have the power to organize and bargain collectively, this is rare in charter schools. In most charter schools, the school leader is empowered to build an effective team by hiring and firing instructional staff and administrators. With the threat of school closure in the background, school leaders are held accountable in turn.

Charter schools are not a panacea and are a “second best” solution to the problem of public education. We’d be better served by a system where every school is effective. Yet until we find another way to address the damning diffusion of power in the Rochester City School District, an expansion of charter schools may be our best strategy.

4 thoughts on “Rochester schools: If all are empowered, none are empowered

  1. Big challenge. Why are others with same barriers better at making education work for urban children and families?

    A system this complex and large needs a leader with management and leadership depth. We have tried well intentioned hard working certified educators, a number of which I supported. It is past the time a seasoned leader of leaders is identified to run the RCSD. We have nothing to lose at this point. I am not talking about a superwoman or man. I am talking about recognizing the baseline skill set required to run a large complex school system.

  2. Basically what I’m hearing here is that the system has collectively organized itself to protect jobs regardless of performance. State law requires superintendents (managers) to have an educational rather than a management background (I’d look for a hybrid). This seems to result in the Peter Principle: people to rise to their own level of incompetence. A person with an educational background is not qualified to manage an enormous enterprise like RCSD, with a huge headcount and budget, gigantic physical real estate inventory, and an unimaginable amount of responsibility to the larger community. I can’t help but wonder why you did not address the school board oversight issue whereby they are shown to be micromanaging things they have zero qualifications to manage. That seemed to be the gist of Aquino’s observations. What a mess…

    • The superintendent is caught between the BoE and RTA/ASAR/BENTE. The challenge is that can’t blame only the board or only the RTA. And, to be fair, I don’t have sufficient experience of the board’s micromanagement to speak with authority. Describing the perpetual dysfunction feels like the blind man and the elephant: Getting a picture of the whole seems beyond any single bit of analysis.

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