Strategies to Accelerate School System Change

How do you accelerate the transition from a dysfunctional school district to a 21st century school system? In Denver, replacing failing schools with charter schools is helping to lead the way. But according to the Progressive Policy Institute ReportA 21st Century School System in the Mile-High City by David Osborne, other strategies are needed as well.

I was especially intrigued by the creation of “an Innovation Zone” for Denver district schools. This policy was authorized by the Colorado legislature in 2008 in the Innovation Schools Act. The Act empowers schools or groups of schools to request waivers to district policies, state statutes, and union contracts. As DPS expanded its charter schools, it aggressively recruited principals to apply for innovation school status, so they could get out from under the union contract and truly manage the school. Now, says Osborne, DPS leaders and staff need to commit to true autonomy for the Innovation Zone if it is to work.

Osborne also recommends that DPS create real autonomy for all district schools by “taming the district monster.” Not all central staff members are fans of giving autonomy to schools. Some believe school autonomy should be partial and depend on the quality of the school –meaning that struggling schools should be held on shorter leashes. “This is counterproductive,” says Osborne. “As the charter sector has shown, it is far more effective to let principals and their colleagues make the decisions at their schools, but hold them accountable for performance and remove their team if children are not learning enough.”

Osborne goes further. If DPS is truly serious about school autonomy, “it should hand principals control and funding for all central service functions, but not policy or compliance functions. It should turn the central offices that provide services into public enterprises that must earn their money by selling their services to schools, and principals should be free to buy these services elsewhere if they prefer.”

Finally, says Osborne, DPS must “double down on the development and recruitment of strong school leaders.” One way to do this is to have them share responsibilities with co-leaders and teacher leaders. The challenge of turnover in leaders of low-income schools is huge, not just in Denver, but everywhere.

School districts and policymakers around the country can learn much from DPS efforts over the last decade. 21st century education requires the hearts and minds of everyone in the district and charter sectors. Let’s learn from one another. Our kids are depending on us.