At its last annual meeting, The Philanthropy Roundtable asked several national leaders in school reform to discuss whether struggling urban school districts can be turned into successes. The session was moderated by James H. Shelton III, program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The panelists were Barbara R. Hyde, president of the Hyde Family Foundation; Shawn Arévalo McCollough, superintendent of the Maricopa County Regional School District; and Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin. An edited transcript follows.
Susan MITCHELL: I have a bittersweet tale of successful educational reform in Milwaukee during the past decade—and a tale of the price we’re paying for that success. Milwaukee has more educational options for parents, particularly for low-income parents, than any city in the country. These options have had very positive results, most notably improvements in the public schools. Yet opposition has grown in direct proportion to success.
Education reform strategy in Milwaukee is based on the belief that parents should have the right to choose the schools best for their children. When parents can vote with their feet and when dollars follow the child, all schools—public and private—have incentives to improve. That is the philosophical glue in Milwaukee that has bound together over a decade a diverse coalition that crosses all sorts of lines: religious, political, and economic.
For years we’ve had a two-pronged strategy. The first part is to expand choices for parents. In 1995, our school-choice coalition went to the legislature and said we want to expand private school choice in Milwaukee. (Today nearly 15,000 students in Milwaukee attend 127 private schools, with up to $6,300 of public support following each child.) In 1997, the same coalition went back to the legislature and said we want to strengthen charter school legislation. We succeeded, and so the state has moved from having a single authorizer of charters—the public school district—to having four authorizers. In 1997, we had one charter school in Milwaukee. We now have more than 50, 11 of them authorized completely outside the auspices of Milwaukee Public Schools.
The second part of our strategy is to support strong public school leaders. In 1999, to hasten public school reform, we recruited and elected a slate of five school board members who made up a majority of the Milwaukee Public School Board. They ran as champions of public school choice.
Because of the changes our coalition has championed, parents have more educational options in Milwaukee than anywhere in the country. We also have a majority of public school board members working hard to improve Milwaukee public schools, and we have had three superintendents in a row, beginning with Dr. Howard Fuller, who have stood up publicly and declared, “Parental choice provides the leverage I need to improve Milwaukee public schools.”
This has led to important consequences. We have long known, thanks to studies by Paul Peterson and others, that students in the choice program do better academically than their low-income peers and that their parents become more involved. What is less well known is the way in which public schools in Milwaukee have responded positively to the competition that choice brings.
Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby compared public schools in Milwaukee to very similar public schools where parental choice was not available. She found Milwaukee public schools showed dramatic improvements, with the greatest gains in those Milwaukee schools most affected by private school choice, namely, the public schools with the largest proportion of low-income students. In the time since Hoxby’s first study, Milwaukee test scores have continued in this pattern. But the gains are not just quantitative. The system has also made structural changes that make it more responsive to parents and also offer teachers more freedom.
For example, in 1999, the pro-reform school board took office. Teachers complained to the board about a feature in their union contract that is in almost every city’s contract: “system-wide seniority.” This gives a public school teacher a right to any slot in any district school when that teacher wants a transfer.
This arrangement resulted in what Dr. Fuller and his cabinet called “the annual dance of the lemons.” Every year, teachers pushed out of a public school by a principal who didn’t want them were put on a list and then arbitrarily assigned to another school that no doubt didn’t want them. The crisis came to a head when a union teacher came to the reform school board and said, “The Spanish immersion school just got a teacher who can’t speak Spanish.” That led to a series of events, including negotiations with the union, whereby system-wide seniority was killed. Every school in Milwaukee may now choose its teachers, which makes the whole system more accountable for results.
Another result of school choice in Milwaukee that we did not foresee is indirectly related to public school improvement, but directly related to community renewal. It demonstrates the kind of leverage school choice achieves.
The school choice programs and the charter program drive more than $100 million annually in state aid to Milwaukee, and that aid goes to parents who send it to private schools or independent charter schools of their choice. This has created an enormous dynamic for community renewal and resulted in additional private investment of about $118 million to expand seats in private schools and charter schools in our most distressed neighborhoods. It is changing the fabric of the city and undoing a ferocious busing program that placed mostly African-American children on buses for an average of 45 minutes each way.
In a rational world, we would hear calls across America for expanded school choice policies that could bring more public school improvement, academic gains, and so on, but education reform in urban areas does not advance on a rational basis. You must understand that this is a political struggle, which makes it difficult.
I learned this lesson the hard way in 2001, and I confess I was naïve. I thought that when we reached the point where we had so many parents in private schools, we would be left alone. Instead, we have had to fight repeatedly against opponents who want to destroy this successful program.
Now we are up against an enrollment cap. If we cannot lift that cap, this program will die a slow death. Our Democratic governor has vetoed legislation we have passed three times to lift that cap, and so the struggle goes on. [On March 10, following a vigorous campaign by the school choice coalition, Governor Jim Doyle signed legislation to lift the cap and increase the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program by 50 percent.]
Let me emphasize a couple of lessons. First, expanding school choice is very powerful, and there’s no reason to give up on it. Be tenacious, because nothing drives education reform like parental choice.
The second lesson: Work for critical mass. We need programs that produce public school improvements in more places than Milwaukee so we can tell people that choice lifts all boats and that it is critical for the whole country, not just urban areas.
James SHELTON: Susan, these achievements took superintendents who recognized that competition could help improve their school system. What was special about them, and how can donors inspire other superintendents?
Susan MITCHELL: They were all strong leaders intent on reform, but the school choice environment greatly helped them make needed changes because the status quo was no longer tenable. As for how best to support strong leaders in public schools, all of us in Milwaukee’s school choice coalition, especially the business leaders, offered direct support to these superintendents, with advice, resources, and help in solving problems unrelated to school choice. For example, in Milwaukee public schools, benefits cost more than 60 cents for every dollar in salary. That is draining the budget and resulting in teacher cuts. The business community teamed up with the current superintendent to explain the problem to the public and create an environment where the issue can be addressed so that more dollars go to teaching.
Shawn Arévalo McCOLLOUGH: I am the Superintendent of the Maricopa County Regional School District here in Phoenix. It’s a small inner-city school district downtown, targeting predominantly at-risk kids—high-poverty kids, minority kids, immigrant kids, high school dropouts.
All my experience is in urban schools. I have proudly worked my way up through the ranks, as teacher, assistant principal, principal, and now superintendent of an inner-city district, and I’ve been in seven different school districts across three different states.
The challenges are the same, district to district. How do you have a successful inner-city school district? I can only tell you what has worked in my experience. I always start with my kids, because they are who we’re here for. Take a close look at their faces.
These kids are the faces of America, and they’ve got tremendous challenges right now. Poverty is up, especially in our urban school districts, but every single one of these children can be saved.
Can urban school districts be reformed? Absolutely. It just takes hard work, commitment, and accountability. Every single district I worked in had positives. There was hope in every district. No one reform will fit all problems, but the one thing I see district to district, school to school, is the need for leadership. If you have a quarterback who can rally the team, they are likely to win. If you have a quarterback who walks into the huddle and says, “I just don’t think we can do it today,” they are not going to win.
We know the disparities for black kids and Hispanic kids, who graduate less often than everybody else. Are the numbers acceptable? Absolutely not. Do black and Hispanic kids lack the ability to make it? Absolutely not.
Our schools aren’t doing enough to save every child, and our leaders must stand up and make it happen. It starts with high expectations. What do we hear about urban school districts? “Those kids don’t care. Those families don’t care. Black kids don’t care. Hispanic kids don’t speak the language. They can’t make it.”
I’m here to tell you they can. It is our expectations that cripple those kids.
We allow principals and teachers to make excuses and lower the bar of expectations. How are kids ever going to make it if we don’t believe in them—more importantly, if we don’t tell them we believe in them?
My last school in Georgia was inner-city, 93 percent poverty, 70 percent Hispanic immigrants, 93 percent minority. We had over a 90 percent pass rate on English-only state testing, and it didn’t take a five-year plan. I opened the school in August 2003, and we had a 90 percent pass rate in May 2004 on annual state testing.
The President, at the Republican National Convention, mentioned our school in his acceptance speech. He held up this little immigrant, minority school that nobody thought could succeed. It sent a message to everybody that you better start believing in our poor kids and our minority kids because they can make it.
It wasn’t easy. They gave me 24 teachers to start with, and you can imagine the caliber, especially since those teachers were shifted from other schools. At my first faculty meeting, they asked, “Shawn, what is your vision for the school?”
“We’re going to win. We’re going to have the most successful school in Georgia. No excuses.”
“Shawn, we can’t do that. We’ve got the poor kids.”
“Yes, we do have poor kids, and we have immigrant kids. But we will be the flagship.”
I invited the newspaper in for this first meeting, and I talked about the low expectations that kill schools. A teacher piped up, “Shawn, that sounds great, but our little Mexican kids, they don’t speak English. I don’t believe our kids have the ability to do it.”
So I said, “You know what? I don’t think you can have a job.” I walked her to the door and told her, “You don’t get to work here because you just hurt our kids.”
Afterwards, everybody came out of the woodwork. The city council was shocked. The mayor came to meet with me. “Shawn,” he said, “That teacher has been here for 27 years. I can’t believe you fired her.”
I said, “Shame on you, Mr. Mayor. You turned a blind eye for 27 years. That’s 27 years she hurt our kids.” He said, “Give her three more years.” I said, “That’s three years my kids can’t afford. We need people here who love kids, who will have high expectations, who will be accountable for whether the kids make it.”
It’s not rocket science. You stand up, do what is right for kids, and get held accountable. In the next three months, I fired 12 teachers because they didn’t believe in Hispanic kids, in poor kids. Worse, they were arrogant enough to declare it. So they went home.
Doing what is right isn’t always easy. You have to stand in the line of fire if you’re going to succeed in urban schools. School choice is important, charter schools are important, private schools are important. But if you will not stand up for what we all know to be right, you won’t succeed.
I told those problem teachers that as long as they were there to hurt kids, I would put them out. I was determined to remove them because if I didn’t, nobody else would. I was charged with the responsibility of caring for kids, unions or not, tenure or not. It was very difficult, but that is the only thing I know. We have a wonderful opportunity for real change in our country’s urban schools.
The Secretary of Education called and asked, “Shawn, can you bring a success story to Washington for an event?” We could have picked any one of our kids. I took a little girl who, when she came from Guadalajara, Mexico, spoke no English. She lost her baby sister en route. Nobody in her family (20 people in her household) thought she could make it. But she believed.
After two years in America, she speaks English, is reading ahead of grade level, passed her state test for promotion, and went all the way to Washington and stood toe to toe with the U.S. Secretary of Education. She didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to make it. All she knew was she was going to be great.
The hope she has is the hope all our inner-city kids should have. It is our job to make it happen.
BARBARA HYDE: I’ve completely scratched my remarks after hearing Shawn. Clearly, we just had the answer to today’s question: Can urban school districts be reformed? Absolutely. What does it take? It takes leaders like Shawn, and they are out there. So now we must ask, “What can we donors do to support and multiply leaders like Shawn?”
Let me take the case of Memphis, where our foundation works. We started out the way many family foundations do. We set up a system for receiving proposals and making grants. We gave nice grants to many different organizations, and we did good work.
Did we have an im-pact? Not really. So we said, “O.K., we have $135 million in assets. That’s big, but not big enough to have dramatic effects just by making grants.” We set about trying to reinvent our work—trying to be more strategic, more focused.
I believe that no big city is serving children at a peak level. Recognizing that, our foundation looked for levers for change and found three: supply, demand, and governance. Supply involves increasing the children’s number of opportunities for high-quality education. We’ve tried to do that in several ways. First, we pushed charter school laws in Tennessee, which lacked any until a few years ago. We also looked at private and parochial schools. We’ve helped the Catholic diocese re-open closed schools, because the diocese provides great education at a reasonable price. Lastly, we’ve worked to increase supply within the traditional school district, with support for public charter schools like the KIPP brand.
Demand is the second lever for change. All of us must ask, “How can we help create an empowered voice for change in a community?” This is something Susan Mitchell speaks passionately about, and Milwaukee is a great model. In Memphis we’ve supported a report card produced by our public education fund in coordination with the district to help put information in parents’ hands about their schools’ performance—not incomprehensible sets of data that parents can’t understand, but some real measures to help parents see the quality of education their children receive.
We want them demanding, “Why are only 30 percent of the kids performing at grade level in this school?” That report card can be a powerful tool. Knowledge is power.
We have also supported an organization called Stand for Children. It was founded by Jonah Edelman, the son of Marian Wright-Edelman, who herself founded the Children’s Defense Fund. Stand for Children builds advocacy at the community-wide grassroots level to weigh in at the political table for change for children—in the schools, health care, and other issues.
The lever for change I want to stress today is governance because, as Shawn so ably demonstrates, it is all about leadership. It is about leadership at the superintendent level. It is about leadership throughout the district administration, which I think is the toughest problem. And above all, it is about leadership in the schools—the principals.
Look around the country at schools like Shawn’s, where they beat the odds, climb the mountain, and make it work. Is the secret curriculum? No, it’s never just a curriculum. Is it dollars spent? No, it’s never just dollars spent. The secret is an amazing principal who makes it happen.
What can we do as family foundations with limited resources? How do we help create and empower a whole new corps of leaders who’ll turn around failing urban schools? Here’s the situation in Memphis: We have around 180 principals, almost half of them eligible to retire, which creates a huge opportunity. Our foundation asked, “Who is creating and empowering great new principals?” After some research, we selected New Leaders for New Schools. This organization started in New York with a mission to create a corps of urban school leaders committed to district turnaround and school turnaround.
New Leaders is achieving its goal by applying the best techniques to a highly selective, rigorous recruitment and selection process, followed by an intensive year-long training program in which each future principal is matched with a mentor principal. Then graduates receive three years of support once they are in their schools, including a lot of help with data and other support they can use to constantly assess how their schools are doing.
Cities actually have to compete for New Leaders to partner with them, and the organization does not work directly with school districts. They work with the cities because they believe that the city, not the district, creates a turnaround. In Memphis we pulled together an Alliance for School Leadership. We brought people together, and I can’t commend to you enough the value of competition in bringing different groups in a city together. Make people compete for something, make them have to reach for a brass ring and aspire. It brings strange bedfellows together.
In Memphis, we were able to bring together in our Alliance the city’s 27 top CEOs, led by Fred Smith of FedEx, and our school district, and our teachers’ union, and the College of Education. These people are usually on different sides of the fence, but they came together to compete with other cities to bring New Leaders to Memphis. Huge momentum and a belief that something could happen grew from this competition, and the Alliance succeeded in bringing New Leaders to Memphis.
What will happen now? Over the next few years, 60 new principals will be trained. That means a third of the principals in Memphis City Schools will come out of this program. They will be higher-performing leaders, with better training and better support.
As part of our work to win a partnership with New Leaders, we negotiated an autonomy agreement with the teachers’ union that will allow these principals going into low-performing schools an unprecedented level of autonomy for hiring, firing, budgeting—all the things that typically block principals’ success. We also persuaded the College of Education to give up its monopoly on certification and allow these principals fast-track certification.
Everything isn’t perfect. But altogether the effect will be huge as a third of city principals begin to change schools. And not just their own schools—this effort is creating a new lever for policy changes because the other two-thirds of principals are looking at the arrangements these new leaders have.
So use competition. Stay the course. Work on how you can place leaders like Shawn and multiply them in the schools, and you will create a turnaround in your district.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In Milwaukee, where does your opposition come from?
Susan MITCHELL: Predominantly from defenders of the status quo, led by the teachers’ union. They take their fears that school choice will damage public schools—even though this has been disproved—to the state legislators, who in turn fear the teachers’ union because of the massive, well-organized political machine it has. School choice lives and dies in Wisconsin and most states in the state legislature. When legislators are threatened by union power and union dollars, the merits of the case are put aside, and you’re forced to address this politically.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Don’t they also try to claim school choice re-segregates schools?
Susan MITCHELL: They tried that, too, but once again we showed that exactly the opposite is true. In Milwaukee, the beneficiaries of school choice are predominantly children of color and kids from low-income families. Those families are a big part of our coalition. They go to legislators saying, “We need choices!” and make the same points Shawn made.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Has anyone found ways to get teachers’ unions to be more supportive?
BARBARA HYDE: We had the advantage of having a reform-oriented superintendent who could go to the union and, largely because of pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act, say, “We have all these schools on the high priority list. If you don’t help me create a turnaround, schools will be closed, jobs will be lost. We must look for new strategies.”
Shawn Arévalo McCOLLOUGH: Accountability is the only way you get anybody to the table. The numbers do not lie. Teachers, principals, and teachers’ unions hide from the issues, and they expect you not to ask these questions. They expect to be able to trump up some excuse: “We don’t get enough money,” or “You’re taking away students from our school district.” It’s all smoke and mirrors.
The only weapons you have in negotiating with teachers’ unions are numbers: What are the passing rates for your children? And if they’re low, how can you continue to support the status quo?
Susan MITCHELL: Let’s distinguish between teachers’ unions and teachers. It’s not been possible in Milwaukee to co-opt the teachers’ union, though it is losing its centralized power as a consequence of 20,000 to 30,000 children in non-union schools.
It is possible to gain support from many teachers. In fact, sometimes I describe school choice in Milwaukee as choice for teachers, too, because you have teachers leaving public schools to teach at mission-driven private schools; to start charter schools; and to create the professional environment that competent educators really want.
James SHELTON: Reed Hastings of the California School Board says we don’t have a shortage of quality teachers, we have a shortage of environments they want to be in.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Barbara, Jim, what lessons have you learned as education donors?
BARBARA HYDE: First, don’t think everybody will love you. The old model of giving money and hearing everyone say “thank you, thank you, thank you” is not the way to make a difference. Get ready to take some slings and arrows and know that if you are being criticized, you are on the right track; you are doing something good. Then recognize it is a long journey. Don’t get discouraged. Stay the course.
James SHELTON: We made lots of mistakes. First, we didn’t realize that everything should be as simple as it can be, but no simpler. As we’ve heard today, broad change in a system requires change in supply, in demand, in governance, in accountability, in human capital. When you ignore the need to have all these things working together in your comprehensive strategy, you get a lopsided equation, and you won’t see the outcomes you’re looking for. This doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. But since none of us can do it all on our own, cooperation and clarity about how all the pieces come together is critical.
We also underestimated how uneven we would make the playing field in certain areas when we went into communities with our large resources. For example, sometimes we created new schools without supplying new leaders. We didn’t always partner well in the local communities. That was our biggest lesson learned.