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Coordinated effort can help boost struggling schools

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on February 28, 2013)

When a struggling student is diagnosed with a disability, he or she receives an Individualized Education Program, a plan tailored to that child and designed to make educational goals more reachable. The IEP is a product of a group effort including parents, teachers, district representatives, evaluators, psychologists, guidance counselors, therapists and advocates for the student. I recently found myself wondering what a similar effort might look like if done on behalf of a struggling school system.

Andy Hargreaves, an education scholar at Boston College, stimulated this thought experiment during a talk he gave at Vanderbilt last week to Metro schools administrators, local education stakeholders and faculty members. Based on studies he has conducted in several nations, he offered a template for leaders to consider as they look to improve education systemically. Hargreaves’ recent book, coauthored with Dennis Shirley, The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence, describes their findings.

In his talk, Hargreaves emphasized having an inspiring vision — a dream — to motivate all parties to move in a positive direction. He also talked about the need to balance the twin goals of improvement and innovation. For instance, it is easy to become enamored of technology, but the use of technology does not itself guarantee greater student achievement (just look at the dismal results of Tennessee Virtual Academy). On the other hand, improvement cannot be sustained indefinitely without innovations in teaching. To verify improvement, teachers and leaders alike should make meaningful use of data.

Communication is critical, and that is what led me to think about a system IEP. Both educators and advocates in Tennessee agree that our schools are not performing to the level desired, but we often find ourselves talking past each other about how to make them better. Inspirational leaders listen first. And because they listen, their vision rings true for others. It motivates others to work toward positive change.

Specific tactics should serve this shared vision. Reforms like charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, vouchers, career academies, turnaround plans, higher standards, testing and teacher performance evaluations should be assessed based on their past results and on how likely they are to be effective in our context. But, most of all, these efforts need to be coordinated so that they are not at cross-purposes with each other and to ensure that they produce learning gains.

Just as many parties have roles to play in designing an IEP for a student, education in Tennessee districts can benefit when representatives for the governor, mayor, the General Assembly, school board, union, the business community, K-12 education and higher education combine their perspectives to set ambitious goals and develop a shared strategy to strengthen learning in their district. Many of these conversations now occur piecemeal. Imagine what we can accomplish if we join them all up.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.