Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sarah DuPre is a Research Assistant in Education Policy at American Enterprise Institute
U.S. News and World Report, “Knowledge Bank” , Dec. 14, 2015
Whether you agree or disagree with their characterizations of Washington, D.C. and Hawaii as “success” stories–the sole metric used is the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress–is less important than the lessons they extract from these two “success” stories. These lessons are anchored in the power of context shaping reform, a lesson that historians have found again and again in their inquiries into past school reforms.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act wisely returns to the states much of the authority for directing school improvement that the federal government had assumed in the past 15 years. Some states are ready to roll, but plenty are searching for potential role models. Fortunately, at least two such candidates are easy to find.
Earlier this fall, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” provided a snapshot of student achievement across the land. Amidst generally disappointing results, there were a few bright spots. Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, led the nation in aggregate national assessment improvement over the past decade. From dismal depths in 2005, the two have climbed their way to respectability. In a new report for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, entitled, “Laggards to Leaders in K-12,” we take a deeper look at what has transpired in these locales that can help account for their outsized gains.
The District’s bold approach to reform is the more familiar story. In 2007, the city council voted to give control of the schools to the new mayor, Adrian Fenty. Fenty appointed the dynamic Michelle Rhee as chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. Under Fenty and Rhee, the District negotiated a radical new contract with the Washington Teachers Union that allowed teachers to earn more than $100,000 a year with just nine years of experience – in return for an end to traditional tenure protections. D.C. Public Schools also streamlined the central administration, adopted a pioneering new teacher evaluation system, revamped a broken special education system and shuttered excess schools. This preliminary work set the stage for a phase two, led by Rhee’s one-time deputy and eventual successor Kaya Henderson, which focused on engaging families and recruiting, retaining and developing talented teachers and school leaders.
Even as these dramatic changes were occurring within D.C. Public Schools, the D.C. charter sector was flourishing. Today, it enrolls about 45 percent of District students. Charters thrived with an ecosystem of organizations that helped to attract and support effective schools. Those efforts were coupled by a statutory shift that gave the D.C. Public Charter School Board oversight of all local charter schools, and allowed them to help poor-performing charters either improve or close.
Hawaii’s story is strikingly different. It is not an account of controversial leaders or bold policies but of culture and collaboration. As a small island state with only 180,000 students and a single school district, Hawaii makes it possible for state leaders to have a direct connection to the schools – and direct control over what happens – in ways that are not feasible in larger states. That personal touch was augmented by leadership stability; Hawaii has had just two state superintendents in the past 14 years.
The District’s bold strategies would have limited applicability in Hawaii because the state couldn’t overhaul its teaching force even if it wanted to. As one official observed, “We’re an island. We get 100 Teach For America teachers a year. Pretty much all our other new teachers come out of the University of Hawaii. If we fire them, it’s not like we’ve got replacements.” Hawaii’s strategy focused on granting more power to local schools and encouraging instructional alignment across grade levels (extending up to the university system). The small size leadership features a lot of conversation and shared commitment, frequently spearheaded by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education, which connects leaders in K–12, higher education, business, philanthropy and government. That trust and familiarity played a key role in Hawaii making notions like “data-driven decisions” and “local control” much more than empty slogans.
Although the District and Hawaii approached school improvement in vastly different ways, both states have made great strides. That suggests it may be worth paying particular attention to a few key similarities:
Persistence Counts. Both states pursued the same approach to school reform for more than a decade. In the churning, fad-filled world of K–12, this makes these states unique.
There Are Lots of Ways Policy Can Help. Advocates tend to fall in love with particular policy prescriptions, but the experience of these states should make clear that policy can spur and support improvement in many different ways. The District benefited from charter school legislation and bold changes to teacher evaluation and pay. Hawaii made do with none of that, because its small size and close-knit culture gave outsized power to informal mechanisms.
It’s About People, Stupid. Education reform tends to treat educators in fairly impersonal terms. But when one talks to key stakeholders in these states, what’s evident is how much time and effort they’ve spent working to humanize their initiatives – not just for children, but for the educators too. While these states are all committed to data-driven decisions, leaders talk about the importance of recognizing and encouraging professionals.
All School Reform Is Local. Successful school reform is inevitably a product of politics, structure, culture and history. This means that what works in one place may not work in another. The D.C. reforms were possible only due to mayoral control. Hawaii’s culture-first approach may work well for an insular, consensus-oriented island state organized as a single district, but not in another context. The lesson is a counsel not of despair but of hope – lots of strategies can work, but they need to be adopted and executed with an eye to local realities.
For those states struggling to set a direction for schools as they regain the reins under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the District and Hawaii provide a disparate but complementary pair of intriguing, instructive models