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Thompson: The Promise of "Clustering" in Scaling Up Reform

MassinsightMass Insight's In The Zone offered a thoughtful response to “Common and Uncommon Ground,” a guest post at Rick Hess Straight Up by Neerav Kingsland and me. It also previewed its new report on the potential of “clustering” in order to scale up school improvement.  Mass Insight argues for:

A “Smart District” of the future, focusing on changing systems and structures so as to give schools more power to focus on the classroom level. Districts would create clusters of high schools and their feeder schools, bringing in Lead Partners to cover administrative and operational support for these clusters, and allowing central office to monitor performance, set standards, and serve as the go-between for federal and state agencies.

Clustering, I believe, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for systemic reform.  Until we hold clusters of school accountable, charters will remain free to focus on relatively easier-to-educate low income students and dump the most traumatized children on neighborhood schools.  Clustering, alone, will not force reformers to heed the research of the Consortium for Chicago School Research and Paul Tough which explains the additional challenge of improving schools with the most intense concentrations of extreme poverty. But, it could slow the “creaming” of more motivated students that has damaged neighborhood schools.

In 2007, I read Mass Insight’s The Turnaround Challenge as one of the most profound analyses that I have encountered in education, or any other subject. It stressed the "Three Cs," Control, Capacity, and Clustering.” It’s commitment to build capacity before rushing ahead with "quick fixes" was common sense. Clustering sounded like a godsend. My only concern with the Three Cs was Control. Even when the object to be controlled was teachers, however, The Turnaround Challenge was very moderate in comparison to the teacher-bashing reforms of the last five years.

Back then, Mass Insight advocated for the opposite of Arne Duncan’s half-baked SIG turnaround policies. It condemned "NCLB's unfulfilled impact" as a "classic example of unintended consequences," saying that the law rushed efforts to turnaround at scale.

The Turnaround Challenge noted that additional "stressors" could be added through more testing. It proclaimed, "no buy-in [by teachers], no reform." Moreover, the report, concluded that the results of the mass replacement of staffs at turnaround schools had been "abysmal." It added that, "a broad all-at-once staff replacement appears less viable as a strategy -- or even one element in a larger one."

The Turnaround Challenge was consistent with Bill Gates’ subsequent affirmation about school improvement, “working with teachers is rule number one." When I made those points in the Huffington Post, Mass Insight replied, “the issue isn’t about how many teachers to ‘get rid of,’” but they ignored the important point.

Under a clustering system, district leaders could hold an entire region accountable and not just scapegoat schools serving extreme concentrations of generational poverty. They could use value-added models only in ways that are appropriate.  Districts could coordinate regional efforts to align socio-emotional interventions, so that neighborhood schools could compete on a level playing field with charters. 

But, in an age of "reform," those policies remain unlikely. Until districts make an honest effort “to transform broken district structures and create new conditions,” and “build more capacity,” clustering, alone will not be enough to end the blame game. (Emphasis by Mass Insight)-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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That explains a lot of the stuff I'm seeing here on the ground. Do you have some idea what a big deal this is, Alex, or did you just happen on it?

This isn't the first time you've been first with breaking news.

No, not Alex. John wrote this! This might actually be the first time, then :)

Well done.

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