Reflections from a Former School District Bureaucrat

By Scott Benson, Managing Partner

arlier in my career, I worked in the central office of the D.C. Public School system. As anyone who has worked in a major urban school district can attest, it was at times incredibly uplifting, and at times a challenging experience. In that vein, one of my team’s responsibilities was to monitor the implementation of several major academic tools and programs the district had purchased on behalf of our schools over the years. Schools were all over the place in their implementations. Some were deeply integrating these solutions into their instructional models, and others were not. In fact, it was not uncommon to see materials still in boxes, untouched.

The question was why? My well-intentioned colleagues who had purchased these resources believed that they would help our schools, so we could have easily concluded that educators were lazy or insubordinate and just needed to be pushed with a directive from on high. However, that would have been short-sighted. It would have bred resentment and probably wouldn’t have had a lasting impact anyway. So I tried to understand the root cause. I traveled to schools throughout the city and spoke with educators. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that two things needed to be true for educators to embrace a solution:

  1. It needed to fit their context. They had to see it as a valuable addition to what they were trying to accomplish with their students. Otherwise, they were likely to half-heartedly implement it or reject it outright.
  2. They needed ongoing, expert guidance and support, particularly when a solution was complex and difficult to implement. The creators of these tools and programs who saw their role as true partners to educators had a much higher degree of success.

Fast forward to today. My team at NewSchools Venture Fund is now responsible for finding, funding and supporting organizations that are helping educators redesign their schools to better meet students’ needs. It’s incredibly exciting work because there are so many passionate educators around the country who are eager to reimagine their classrooms and schools, but they just need some help to make that happen.

Although educators can take many paths to redesigning their schools, we have focused primarily on a type of organization called a “model provider.” Model providers are organizations that partner with a school or system to improve learning outcomes for a whole school or meaningful portion of it. They offer a bundle of integrated tools and resources (a “model”), plus implementation support. By working alongside educators to implement the model, they are able to share responsibility for results. And because they have ambitions to grow their impact over time, serving hundreds or perhaps even thousands of schools, model providers could potentially have a significant impact on student success nationwide if this concept were to gain momentum.

Over the past two years, we supported 25 model providers. We also studied multiple other organizations following similar paths. From these interactions, we learned a lot about what makes for a successful implementation. Not surprisingly, it closely mirrors my D.C. experience. We will share these findings in an upcoming paper — School Redesign: Partnerships that Fit.

A core idea of that piece is that “a model provider is not merely selling a product or replicating a program — they are assisting a school community in the process to reimagine itself. For this level of change, the two must truly become partners.” We then describe how model providers, and other organizations that support school redesign, can pursue authentic partnerships that have a higher chance of achieving mutual success.

As a starting place, we make the case that these organizations should define a set of Partnership Readiness Conditions — those qualities within the school ecosystem required for the model to be implemented successfully. For example, a model provider might require 85% of educators to vote “yes” to adopt their model before they agree to engage in a partnership. The big idea is that not every school will be an ideal partner for a model provider, and vice versa, but it’s in the best interest of both sides to figure that out early on.

Stay tuned for more on this topic; we will regularly share what we learn. We expect to release the next paper before the end of the year. In it, we hope to offer a mini playbook that is useful for model providers and educators alike as they explore these partnerships.

I am convinced our public schools can adapt to better meet the needs of today’s students, who are members of the most diverse generation in our nation’s history. But change is often hard, particularly in complex systems like school districts. Educators need solutions that fit their needs and true partners that can help them along the way. I’m hopeful model providers can be part of that solution.

NewSchools Venture Fund is a national nonprofit venture philanthropy working to reimagine public education.

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