The Answer Is in the Room

During this past school year, great teaching took place in every school, in every district in the country, says Alan Blankstein. And it wasn’t the result of top-down, punitive education “reform” measures.

“Too much of the reform discussion has been a witch-hunt,” Blankstein says. “The dialogue in the country right now is horrific. You would think our public schools have ceased to function, but good work is being done across the country.”

The challenge, as Blankstein sees it, is not a lack of ideas or great educators. It’s about “scaling” the success – reaching a much wider body of students and ensuring that the structural and cultural transformation has occurred district-wide that is necessary to sustain success.

“There is no shortage of great ideas about what works in the classroom,” Blankstein says. “We’re wasting too much time searching for bad people in education! This will not produce results. It will just leave us further and further behind other countries in student achievement.”

Blankstein’s positive message of educational empowerment is the driving force behind his work as the founder and president of the HOPE Foundation.

Alan Blankstein speaks during the NEA 147th Annual Meeting in July 2009. Photo: Rick Runion

Founded by Blankstein in 1989, the HOPE Foundation (Harnessing Optimism and Potential through Education) works with schools, unions, community organizations, and business leaders to design and implement strategies to turn around low-performing schools, close achievement gaps within and between schools district-wide, and sustain overall success.

The title of his just-released book says it all: “The Answer is in the Room.”

Take the Mansfield Independent School District (ISD) in Texas. This 40,000-student district has maintained a high rate of student success – even while experiencing a rapid growth of English language learners. In 2011, the district achieved the status of “Recognized” by the state of Texas and has an overall above proficiency success rate of 88.5 percent.

Mansfield ISD superintendent Sarah Jandrucko credits much of the success to the implementation of the HOPE Foundation’s Courageous Leadership Academy (CLA) – a model built on the Foundation’s Six Principles of school reform.

The six principles are:

  • Developing core mission, vision, values, and goals
  • Building systems for intervention and prevention
  • Collaboration focused on teaching and learning
  • Using data to guide decision-making and continuous improvement
  • Gaining active engagement from family and community
  • Building sustainable leadership capacity

In addition to learning these principles, the CLA model requires the creation of school-based leadership teams and provides tools for them to interact and collaborate. The goal is to not only enhance student engagement and achievement, but also to foster commitment, build instructional leadership and decision-making protocols that can build on success and institutionalize the practices. Full implementation usually occurs over a three-year period. (The CLA model is supported the National Education Association and American Association of School Administrators.)

“The CLA process significantly contributed to our school district’s success not only in terms of maintaining high student achievement rates, but also in staff morale,” explains Jandrucko. “Our students are more focused and willing to learn, and we believe the educators within these 34 schools will create a wave of powerful, innovative leadership for the district.”

“Our primary objective was to get us all headed in the same direction and speaking the same language, and that’s happened.” (The American Institutes of Research conducted a detailed study examining the on CLA Model’s impact on Mansfield ISD)

Getting all the relevant players in sync and building trust, Blankstein says, is the key to the process.

“But once that is established and teachers, administrators, and others are on the same page, the culture in the school, across the district, has shifted. We can scale up the successes and sustainability can take hold. That’s what collaboration can accomplish.”

For more information about the HOPE Foundation and CLA model, visit www.hopefoundation.org

Read more about collaborative reform initiatives at NEA Priority Schools