What It Takes

As I have argued many times in this space, there are no shortcuts in improving schools. Education is too complex, too multi-layered a process to suggest that any one strategy or any one leader can make all the difference.  Instead, real and lasting school improvement takes the combined efforts of many individuals and a blended approach to bring about change. So, in the case of expanded time, we like to say that more time is necessary, but not sufficient.  And the same could be said of leadership, robust data or good teachers.  They are all necessary and are only sufficient when working together.

Now, the question might be what does it mean to be “sufficient”? Certainly, a loaded question, but in Boston, a local consortium of education funders, called “EdVestors”, have put some concrete examples before us of what it means to be successful in urban education. And, to their credit, EdVestors looks not just at results—though these are highly significant, of course—but also about what it takes to get these results. The latest winner of the annual $100,000 School on the Move prize is the Clarence Edwards Middle School in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. As EdVestors makes clear, the Edwards won the prize this year not just for its steady (and steep!) climb in proficiency rates over the last several years, but also because it has built these results upon a foundation of organizational strengths. According to EdVestors:
This year’s winning school – as well as the five prior winners – all utilized a similar set of core practices that were central to their remarkable improvements in child learning:
o Strong and collaborative leadership from principals with active involvement and support from teachers;
o Collecting detailed student data beyond district requirements and using that data to develop changes in curriculum and instruction on a continuous basis;
o Balancing high academic and behavioral expectations of students with high levels of support beyond the classroom to address students’ academic, social and emotional needs.
We at NCTL want to congratulate the Edwards on this prestigious award, but, truth be told, we are not that surprised.  A couple of years ago, we profiled the school’s remarkable journey from near closure in 2005 to the highest performing middle school in the city. And, since seeing is believing, check out this cool video that NCTL put together of how the Edwards individualizes instruction—and, thus, maximizes the use of their expanded time.
Now, the challenge that lies before the Edwards (and all of us, really) is to take this school’s great success and spread it to other urban schools. Just today, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the Boston Public Schools is among the list of 23 finalists for the second round of Innovation Grants (commonly known as i3 Grants). So, now, Boston has the remarkable opportunity to prove that the Edwards is no fluke—that it is possible to transplant the strategies employed at the Edwards to other schools.
Already, we have word that such a replication at other sites has begun and begun well. A recent report from The Boston Foundation indicates that other schools in Boston and throughout the state that are (or were) slapped with the same “underperforming” label as the Edwards have, indeed, made some remarkable progress in the last year climbing out of the hole, using among other things, expanded time as one of its key strategies. Whether or not such progress can be sustained and grow over time, as it has at the Edwards, remains to be seen, but knowing it can be done perhaps might make the goal seem a little more achievable. If the Edwards can do it, why not others?