Horace Talks with Warren Simmons: “Smart Districts”

Horace editor Jill Davidson spoke with Dr. Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Established at Brown University in 1993 as an outgrowth of the work of the Coalition of Essential Schools, the Institute’s current mission is to generate, share, and act on knowledge that improves conditions and outcomes in American schools, particularly in urban areas and systems serving disadvantaged students. Dr. Simmons joined the Annenberg Institute in 1998, bringing a rich history of work on urban education issues at foundations, school systems, various projects focused on school change, and just prior to his work at Annenberg, as head of the Philadelphia Education Fund.

Horace: What can we learn from what’s happening in some of the country’s large urban districts? Specifically, what is notable at the system level as opposed to the individual school level?

Warren Simmons: How do you take reform to scale and create a community of successful schools? The only way I think you can deal with it effectively is begin to map out school change at a level larger than the school so it is equitable and promotes excellence. You can’t plot that out at school level. You have to plot that across groups of schools. If you focus on individual school attainment, the success of one school can occur at the expense of others. When you look at the progress of some school networks in Philadelphia or even the Boston Pilot Schools, those schools are successful, but as a result, there are equity concerns. They’re not serving a proportionate number of students in special education, English language learners, or others who are performing significantly below grade level. The same thing happened in New York City when they started instituting their small schools. As the number of small schools increased, problematic students were being deflected back into large comprehensive high schools, thereby increasing both their burden and internal community opposition to small schools.

Horace: You’re describing how to ensure equity for a whole community, which is something that’s out of the hands of individual schools.

Simmons: Here at the Annenberg Institute, we’re increasingly agnostic about whether the district is the entity that has to do this. But we argue that you need a “smart system,” which is to say that whether your system is an independent network of schools, a charter-management organization, or a traditional district, you have to think about how you allocate your human resources to ensure that you have well-trained, highly motivated and credentialed teachers and school leaders. And how do you adjust the allocation of your fiscal resources so all schools get the resources they need within the larger limits of the system? That requires fundamental transformation of district policies and contractual agreements.

Horace: What are some specific ways that is happening?

Simmons: One of the things we all have to take responsibility for, whether we’re standards-based reformers or bottom-up reformers, is that both camps did very little thinking about systems. Standards-based reform totally ignored the district, and the bottom-up reform path of the Coalition of Essential Schools has walled itself off from the district. That’s one of the reasons why we convened the Task Force on the Future of Urban Districts [2000-2003]: we had learned from the Annenberg Challenge that if you don’t pay attention to the district, even the greatest innovation will be marginalized and eventually revert to previous practice because that’s what the district reinforces and supports.

What seems to be appearing across the country to spark the redesign of the system is that rethinking is being catalyzed at the school level and supported by an external partner that acts as an advocate, collecting data and supporting the vision inside the system that leads to the system’s transformation. How do you redesign supports for schools on a smaller, more efficient, more effective scale to enhance equity, excellence, and accountability and to build ownership in the community and capitalize on community resources? If you ask a different set of questions, you’ll get a different design. What Philadelphia, New York City and others are struggling with is to redesign the system. The newest notions are to redesign these school districts so that they support “portfolios” of school networks. Philadelphia is the most advanced model, with networks that are led by different providers. The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University run networks. Nonprofits like Foundations, Inc. use their knowledge of afterschool work to design a network of schools, as do community development corporations such as Universal Companies, which comes from record-company owner Kenneth Gamble. The district has to figure out how it adjusts its contractual agreements, teacher and principal assignment policies, human resource systems, fiscal allocation systems and accountability systems so that you get innovation within a framework of accountability and you also get some coherence. Given the mobility of teachers, principals and students, you don’t want a situation where a child experiences radically different standards and learning experiences simply by moving a few blocks.

Horace: So this is more than portfolios of schools within a district?

Simmons: The districts that are stretched in terms of their capacity will be better able to operationalize a portfolio of school networks than they will a portfolio of schools. Think about New York City with a thousand schools. Do they want a portfolio of schools or portfolio of school networks? Ultimately, it’s about creating a job that’s manageable, effective, and innovative.

The only way you’re going to close the achievement gap is if educational opportunities in the school are aligned with and reinforced by educational opportunities in the community. We have to think about opportunities for education that exist inside the walls of school and also interface with opportunities for education outside the walls of schools. If you look at how small schools are developing in New York, Oakland and Sacramento, they’re developing in partnership with community organizations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone. The important point is that it’s happening on the scale of a network of schools, not on the scale of individual schools. Also, I’m interested in finding good educational pathways from kindergarten to high school. The job of the district is to create those pathways. If you do that differentiation at the individual school level, there’s no guarantee you get a pathway. It may be harder to get the interface with community institutions that you need to support extended learning.

Horace: So what advice do you have for CES to create a system that will support the change that’s happened at the school level in so many Essential schools?

Simmons: If we’re wholly dependent on charismatic school leaders to get this done, we won’t get it to scale. So unless we have a strategy for making everyone into a charismatic leader, and I haven’t seen that strategy yet, how do you develop the tools so you can create a set of scaffolds to allow the people who are in the schools now to perform well and develop over time? If you want to sustain the initiative and take it to scale, you have to develop the capacity to document the work, develop systems and tools so that new teachers and continuing educators refine their craft over time. I think that education in large part suffers from the romanticism of the craft. We all are in love with the individual enactment of teaching and learning and we underplay the importance of systems and tools. Sometimes when I say “tools” or “systems,” people think I’m taking about bureaucracy. The idea of relying solely on individual creativity to unleash the human spirit – that’s a much more labor-intensive human-transmission model than is necessary in the information and technology age.