Part 2: A Response
As I foreshadowed in Part 1 of Growing Quality Education with Effective Practices, I know Schools That Can has the potential to use effective practices as a lever to transform schools and expand seats of quality education for low-income students. I know this because of the theory being practiced by STC Milwaukee. Paradoxically, STC Milwaukee is showing us how to use Hess’s own theories to prove his conclusions about effective practice sharing wrong. Here’s how:
The primary challenges to transforming schools are politics, motivation, competence and knowledge. STC Milwaukee has created a system that minimizes the impact of politics, motivation and competence, allowing them to focus all their energies on the facilitation of learning.
As a third party organization without a political agenda, they remove the distraction of cross-sector politics. Rather than mandating school leaders to change from the top down, they use the Schools That Can model of identifying schools with proven success, then invite only the most competent school leaders in underperforming schools to collaborate based on a clear criteria and selection process. Through all these means, STC Milwaukee has replaced the culture of compliance that’s all too common in school reform with a culture of engagement and collaboration– person to person and school to school.
Ironically, they have created a version of the “Greenfield” Rick Hess promotes: the removal of barriers to success in the development of functional, high performing educational institutions. Having removed the distracting elements of politics, motivation and competence, they focus squarely on the one remaining challenge–providing access to knowledge. This they do brilliantly with a model that can be replicated at scale because it is founded on simple practices fundamental to all great education. Their partners–school leaders who opt in to this community of practice with aim of improvement–get first hand exposure to high functioning member schools. They are provided with a clear and focused description of effective practices used by those schools and the regular feedback of a coach that supports them in implementing them faithfully. Furthermore, they have a clear bar to strive for and a community of fellow learners, both locally and nationally, by which to measure their progress.
I fully agree with Hess that there are many paths to the goal of an excellent education for children. We just spent three days at the STC Forum in the presence of dozens of school leaders with diverse school models that are achieving quality that is irrefutable on any scale and goes far beyond achievement on narrow tests of ELA and Math. However, these paths can be known and described. Hess himself admits that the number of effective practices is not infinite. STC isn’t creating these paths, nor even promoting one rigid or monolithic vision over another. We also don’t force change on those who aren’t interested or aren’t capable of implementing it. STC is a neutral third party, a standard bearer, and a facilitator of learning. At its best, Schools That Can has the potential to quiet the distracting winds of politics and clear away the tangled underbrush of inertia and incompetence, so that those who are willing and capable can get on a path to achieving the quality learning environments their students deserve.
So, Rick Hess is exactly right and completely wrong about effective practice sharing. We can get there from here, but we have to clear the way first by focusing on learning—for adults and children. STC can do it. Milwaukee is showing us how.