As the calendar turned to 2013, it signaled the beginning of the 20th anniversary year of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (AISR), where I have served as executive director since 1998.
Warren Simmons: How has AISR changed since you were named executive director 15 years ago?
We are very proud of our support for urban education during the past two decades. Sadly, large disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes still exist, especially in low-income communities and for children of color, despite the federal government’s past and current efforts.
In the 20 years since former diplomat, publisher, and philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg so generously endowed the Institute, the face of education reform in the U.S. has markedly changed. AISR was launched in an era when equity drove the education agenda through the initial Elementary and Secondary Education Act and its reauthorizations, with a focus on delivering resources to schools and districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged children to remedy past discrimination. In the early 1990s, the focus moved toward an excellence agenda, with standards as the driver and the stated goal of raising the performance of all students in all schools, rather than closing achievement gaps. No Child Left Behind continued this doctrine and rolled out broad accountability measures based on market concepts of competition, evaluation, rewards, and sanctions.
Warren Simmons: How would you characterize education reform today?
Today, the federal government has amplified that agenda, supported by corporate philanthropy, with a focus on teacher performance evaluation – making pay for performance a reality in many states and districts – and strategies to address the lowest-performing 2,000 schools. These policies reflect an unprecedented federal involvement in the details of education reform, causing a disproportionate impact on the plan pursued by states and districts, and exemplified by the standards established by the Race to the Top program.
A groundswell of “pushback” has developed to this approach. Improving student performance in low-performing schools involves more than changing the human capital in those schools. It involves more than just closing schools and turning them over to education management organizations or charter groups. It does involve enhancing our understanding of teaching and learning, building the capacity of schools, teachers, and districts, and collaborating with families and communities to promote teaching and learning both inside and outside the school.
Teaching is a collective activity. It’s not an individual teacher working alone that makes a difference in a child’s life; it’s a group of teachers working in concert with supports and resources in communities, including parents. And it’s not simply districts that educate students; it’s the entire community. We need to figure out how, at the time of limited resources and economic challenges, to make better use of local assets – from municipal agencies to institutions of higher learning – for the benefit of our schools.
We need a new national narrative, focused on equity. Urban communities have many strengths. There are teachers who are well intentioned but need support and capacity building. And schools can’t work alone. They need to work in partnership with communities and other local, state, and national resources. It’s what we at the Annenberg Institute call building a “smart education system.”
Just as the federal government incentivized the development of standards and stronger systems for data, evaluation, and compensation, it should incentivize the collaboration of parents, students, teachers, and municipal leaders in their efforts to build stronger education systems. Education reform needs to move away from blaming and finger pointing to mutual responsibility for strengthening teaching and learning, including extending the school day and year so that all students have the opportunity to capitalize on supportive and enriching experiences.
AISR has changed as well over the past 20 years. In the late 1990s, we shifted our focus from urban schools to how to redesign urban districts. We developed a framework of essential elements that “smart” districts need to follow to take performance to scale, a significant step toward introducing and promoting the concept of fundamentally redesigned districts within the national education reform agenda.
I now believe we need to redouble our efforts in the area of district redesign, particularly as more and more districts move toward portfolio systems management, often unaware that simply adopting a data-driven strategy is not enough. The district also needs to maintain its role as a capacity builder across all schools.
It’s also become clear to us that education reform is not simply a technical matter. Creating strong school or district models is not enough. It’s about changing the nature of education politics. It’s about changing social and cultural attitudes and norms. Poor children who succeed should be the rule, not the exception, and they deserve the resources they need to be successful.
In the last decade of our work, we’ve paid more attention not only to district redesign that’s focused on capacity building and equity, but also on organizing communities, providing them with the data they need to inform their political advocacy and strengthen their work. However, this often thrusts us into a difficult position, as we simultaneously work closely with district leaders, mayors, and school boards in a given community, while assisting union leaders and/or groups of parents and students from that same community.
The culture of education reform is based on adversarial relationships, and there’s an expectation that we will choose a side. Instead, we strive to maintain – even within these sometimes-stormy environments – a fundamental belief that equity, results, community, and learning all matter, and partnership is critical to success. Where there’s resistance, we aim to maintain our credibility so we can effectively serve as the voice that brings together differing parties. While that’s a struggle, it’s become a hallmark of our work.
Nearly sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the achievement gap, recently characterized by a federal commission as “staggering,” still prevails. Remedying this requires an unflinching dedication to reducing inequities in learning opportunities and results and to cultivating and rekindling the beliefs of educators and communities in the capacity of all students to excel. This core commitment has driven our work from the beginning, and will continue to do so during the next 20 years.