Thursday, January 28, 2010

Feb 5th Talk on Denver Innovation Schools

There's an upcoming talk that got my attention:

Innovation Schools: A Blueprint for Student Success
Featuring Rob Stein, principal of Manual HS in Denver
Fri, Feb 5, 11:30am - 1:30pm, at the Westin in Seattle
$35. For more details, see

Let me first say: I am not pro-charter nor anti-union, despite the anonymous slings others have tossed at me. I'm just a parent who is convinced we can do better with our schools, and like many of you (including some great principals and teachers), frustrated at the seeming lack of vision, progress, or accountability. I'm not strictly against charters like others who often speak up on this blog, but I share their concerns about outsourcing a public service to non-public entities who might too easily be tempted to increase profits at the expense of the kids most in need. I should also add that I am not a member or supporter of the Washington Policy Center. While education can and should be non-partisan, my political leanings are often at odds with WPC's.

BUT... it is hard to read the description of this talk without envy. It strikes me that the most appealing aspect of charters to many folks is not the model itself, but the ability to disregard the existing bureaucracy. What do you think?

Here is the description of Rob Stein's work in Denver:

Rob Stein is the principal of Manual High School, an inner-city school in Denver, Colorado. This school was closed in 2006, as it was the lowest performing school in Colorado. (All kinds of reforms had been tried on the school, and failed.) With Rob Stein (former principal of the best private school in Denver) at the helm, it re-opened in 2007. In March 2009, the Colorado Board of Education granted Stein’s application for Innovation School status.

This status permits Rob Stein and his school leadership team (which includes faculty) to obtain waivers from the most restrictive state regulations and certain provisions of collective bargaining agreements, so they can deliver high-quality education for children. This new model allows Rob Stein to:
* control his school budget, staff and school schedule
* hire teachers on one year contracts
* award multi-year contracts for only the best teachers on staff
* award performance bonuses to teachers
* part-time specialists to teach certain subjects, even if those teachers do not hold a credential
* add time to the school day and double the time spent each day on key subjects
* create interim student assessments
* choose curricula
* create a dynamic leadership team made up of the principal, administrators and faculty

The local school board may revoke an Innovation School plan if, after three years, the academic performance of the students at the school has not improved significantly, so Innovation Schools are accountable for performance.

In other words, they hired a proven instructional leader, gave him the freedom to work with his faculty & community to innovate, and then they will hold him accountable for results. I'm sure there are lots of folks who will shoot holes in this, but... Doesn't this sound a lot like what most of us would like to see in our schools? Do any of our schools, e.g. alternatives or new STEM, have this kind of control? Shouldn't we be able to try this out without having to turn to charters?


Charlie Mas said...

I have begun to wonder:

What would success at STEM look like? How will we measure it?

And, if we don't know that going in, then how will we know if the school is a success or not? If we don't know that going in, then why are we doing this? What do we hope to achieve?

zb said...

Are you suggesting that most of us would like to see principals (at least good ones) run their individual schools like fief lords, with the option that we can kick them out (close the school? fire the staff) if the school children at the school don't show ("improvement") over the course of 3 years.

Not I. Nothing about the plan sounds particularly attractive to me.

wseadawg said...

Andrew: It sounds exciting at a first glance. But the kicker for a lot of these bold ideas is this parenthetical passage from the article in your post:

(All kinds of reforms had been tried on the school, and failed.)

So what about the kids who received similar hyped-up promises of great things during the years preceding the current model? And where are the safeguards to protect the current kids, if the current school doesn't live up to its billings?

To be fair, that's rarely an answerable question, I realize. But for over a century, reform effort after reform effort have spawned yet more reform efforts, each time by a new crop of energetic change agents saying "it's going to be different this time."

Is this school different? Will it work? Is it working now? We'll all have to wait and see.

As a parent of children in a solid school and program in SPS, I don't want more change; I want SPS to leave my school and teachers alone and quit making their lives and jobs harder.

I'm not sure what is unsatisfactory in your particular school, if anything, or what particular objective CPPS has, beyond increasing the number of "effective teachers" while reducing the number of ineffective or down right horrible ones. (Which I agree with btw, but not necessarily at the expense of reasonable rules already in place that protect good teachers).

What I can't figure out, but would like to, regardless of what new model is put forth for discussion, is what scale of reform you are talking about, what population you would like it to effect (your own kids or other disadvantaged kids who have struggled historically and presently).

I guess to simplify things, I should ask: If this school sounds like something we'd consider emulating in Seattle, where is it you think it could or should be emulated, with what particular populations, and why?

SolvayGirl1972 said...

Since we are moving toward neighborhood schools, and Seattle is a veritable checkerboard in so far as socio-economic diversity, I don't see how any school can "reform" in regards to a specific population. Isn't that what the perceived problem with Madrona was? The school was doing great for a specific population (low-income, historically under-achieving kids), but not necessarily for the full spectrum of kids that could make up the school population if it pulled from the entire neighborhood.

I think that is Seattle's biggest hurdle. Unlike some cities, where neighborhoods are clearly defined by their socio-economics, Seattle has a huge mix—especially in the Central District and the Southend where kids living in low-income housing can be assigned to the same schools as kids living in mansions. It's very hard for a school with a limited budget to serve both populations well.

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

I, too, have all kinds of questions about these "Innovation Schools" -- which appear to just be regular public schools (not charters) given permission to play by different rules. I'll attend the talk and report back. I think the complexity of Seattle's schools (as SolvayGirl points out) is exactly the reason why more local control seems attractive. It's not sweeping reforms du jour I'm after -- it's sustainable management, which begins with leadership and community buy-in. Is there any school community in Seattle that feels "stable" right now after the latest round of program changes, closures, new assignment plan, curriculum changes, etc.? Is it even clear who is running each individual school? That ties back to accountability -- the principal, the central staff, the Board -- everyone can point fingers elsewhere. And at the end of the day, the neighborhood schools are still very different (some house special programs, some are language immersion, etc.) and nobody in the central staff has defined what success looks like for any school or any teacher, for that matter. I'd think our best bet is to let individual leaders work with their staff and community to define what they want success to look like. And then give them the authority to develop a strategy to get there, with measurements in place to make sure the strategy is meeting its goals. I'm sure there are other alternatives, but the status quo approach of no visible strategy and no definition of excellence is not sufficient.

zb said...

"Is there any school community in Seattle that feels "stable" right now after the latest round of program changes, closures, new assignment plan, curriculum changes, etc.?"

Maybe not, but that's 'cause we are in a period of transition to the new SAP. That's a big big change in the way assignments will be made in Seattle, and it will change things.

And, of course, we're in the biggest budget crunch in a very very long time. No one is going to feel stable under those circumstances.

wseadawg said...

Andrew: I think the SI and Board would be offended at the thought of "no visible strategy and no definition of excellence" - not that I give a damn. But I'd also have to disagree. We may not like their strategy, or understand it, but SPS definately has one, come hell or high water! Does it involve community input? Not really. Does it reflect what the community wants? No. Do they care? Not at all.

Part of what you describe is site-based management which was favored years ago by John Stanford, but also which this SI and Board have moved away from in favor of centralization, and they will apparently, incrementally return autonomy to local schools when it's "earned," Whatever that means.

You're absolutely right that the more local the solutions and ideas, the better, assuming the school is well resourced, supported, etc. That's why we have great Alternative and Neighborhood Schools in Seattle already btw, and it's what parents want. But that's also what offends and upsets parents in less economically well-off areas, and at schools that have historically gotten short-changed by the district. They may see that as inequitable, and in many cases they're right.

So I see a tension between the "Excellence for All" model currently being pursued, and the "let the local community decide" model you're putting forth here.

There will still be distinguishing strengths, and unfortunate inequities under any plan, but I think you'll get battered with plenty of rhetoric by stepping into the profile of people in better areas getting to do what they want, while others get told what to do. (Sad fact of life, but not a reason to give up).

I will say, as a parent of kids who got moved around last year, right now, I want to chain myself to the school, swallow the key and say, Bastante! Go away and leave us alone SPS!

But what are the kinds of things you'd like to see that you aren't seeing now in your local school or neighborhood? To me, that's where these discussions should start: at the real grass roots.

seattle citizen said...

Andrew, muchy of the instability we see now is driven by "reform" on a grand scale. Your argument seems to support some people's theory that current craptitude is created to justify future movement towards non-public schools: "Oh, look the schools are chaotic! We better start some charters!"

Also, you write that "nobody in the central staff has defined what success looks like for any school or any teacher, for that matter."

Can you define success for us? What exactly is success in the classroom?

SSDemp said...

I don't recall the "anonymous slings" as clearly as you do but in my experience, others have frequently called you on rushing to judgements on complex issues before having any facts whatsoever and then not being big enough to say "I was wrong" or "I made a mistake".

That's what we have noticed about your input.

cf13 said...

A few years ago, The New Yorker published a very interesting article detailing Manual High School's closure and reopening under then Superintendent Michael Bennet (now the junior Senator for Colorado). It is called "Expectations: Can the students who became a symbol of failed reform be rescued?" and was written by Katherine Boo. It was published in the January 15, 2007 issue and a copy can be found in The New Yorker's website archives available at

I found it amazing and very informative. It certainly would be appropriate background reading for all those attending the lecture (or those interested in school reform).

As a side note, this week's issue of The New Yorker has an interesting article about Arne Donald, the US Secretary of Education and the stimulus money.

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

Some responses:

To Seattle Citizen: It's the people who are in charge who should be saying what success looks like--not me. I'm not saying it's easy, but it is fair to expect it.

To WSEADAWG: I didn't mean to imply there was no strategy -- that is why I said "visible strategy." My issue is that we all have to come up with theories to explain Dr.G-J's decisions. A good leader (especially a leader of a public service) should be more transparent.

And to ZB: I think things felt unstable even before the new SAP, and it seems like a budget crisis in SPS is the norm, not the exception. I think the new SAP could have gone over more positive if there was more talk about academic strategies for the schools along with it (i.e. "you have to go to school X but here are all the things we're going to do to make school X great"). Instead, it's been "you have to go to school X, but don't worry, we'll have excellence for all" (whatever that means).

cf13: Thanks for the article recommendation. Quite a story, and points to the need to involve communities in decisions and strategies.

wseadawg said...

Two questions, by the way: If the guy is the current principal of the school, what's he doing lecturing in Seattle on a school day, and why is he charging $35 a head. Sounds like he's already cashing in, instead of "keeping it real," and it being "all about the kids." Valid questions, I think.

And seriously, if the WA Policy Center is on Board, it's all about privatization or profiting somehow. Let's be honest.

But hey, I might still go to hear what he has to say.

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

Good questions.
Maybe it's their "day between semesters." ;-)

dan dempsey said...

Andrew, Thanks so much for posting this. Top notch stuff for thinkin' 'bout.

Chris said...

Andrew, perhaps this tour season you should visit some alternative schools and see what has been built in this district during the period of site-based management by dedicated leaders and good teachers. I have been around to about half and hope to complete the picture this year.

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

Will be interested to hear what you discover, Chris -- I hope you post it. I have been to a bunch of alternative schools, including volunteer time. My family so far has stuck with "non-alternative" (there is no "standard" as far as I can tell since schools vary quite a bit). I've been impressed with much of what I've seen, but I've also heard school staff say they wish they had more control.

seattle citizen said...

Andrew, schools USED to have control - they were site-based, teachers devised interesting, effective curriculum (at trad schools and at alts...Lots of good stuff going on...but now we have a movement towards centralized decision-making, here in SPS and a national level with ol' Arne Duncan's push for "reforms" tied to funding and standardized tests.

Our problem is how to derail this monstrous, centralized juggernaut and return to innovative programs and academies that develop on site, with interested parents and teachers and the flezibility to do these things, rather than continue to suck up to the feds and centralize everything via inaccurate standardized scores and the contraction of education down to the mere base elements of Reading, Writing, Math and Science.