Doing Schools Differently

What must school districts do to deliver on the globally benchmarked academic standards known as Common Core? This is the primary question that the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CPRE) attempts to answer through a series of three reports supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“Twenty-first century learning practices demand twenty-first century systems,” wrote CRPE director Robin Lake in a recent blog post. “If we’re serious about innovation, states and districts will need to tackle politically difficult subjects like union contracts, accountability policies, and school-level autonomies.”

Lake added, “We’ll also need to tackle some pretty boring—but essential—implementation work to replace antiquated and risk-averse central office systems and habits with nimble and updated ones.”

“CRPE’s findings emphasize the complexity of district reform—an issue we also recognize in the design principles featured in our challenge paper Opportunity by Design,” said LaVerne Evans Srinivasan, the Corporation’s Vice President, National Program. “School district structures and policies do a lot to impede twenty-first century designs, and it’s important that we break down these barriers and unlock potential to support the creation of new school models.” 

The first paper Next Generation School Districts looks at how school redesign is hindered by rigid district policies and complex bureaucracies, which make it difficult to introduce innovative strategies like personalized learning for students.  Among the solutions cited by researchers: give schools autonomy over use of staff, time, money, and curriculum.

The second paper The Case for Coherent High Schools provides a history of comprehensive “shopping mall” high schools and compares them to redesigned high schools that are organized around a shared mission. One of its findings notes that state and federal policies like seat-time requirements and the expectation that students be organized by grade levels can act as barriers to change.

Lastly Redesigning the District Operating System examines the ways in which districts are structured and how their operating systems impede redesign––an issue that is often ignored when addressing school reforms. CRPE Practitioner in Residence Steven Hodas puts the finding in context in his blog post where he noted, "I believe that the reason we are dissatisfied with our schools is not because they do the wrong things but because they do things wrongly, whatever the thing is. And that is because of the DOS (district operating system).

Lake explains, “We describe a set of interlocking, mutually reinforcing functions like procurement, contracting, data and IT policy, the general counsel’s office, human resources, and the systems for employee and family engagement.”  

As the title of Lake’s blog suggests, schools can’t innovate until districts do.

Read more about the series and download copies here.