UW News

October 19, 2004

How to make schools better? Bring in outside help, experts say

Big city school districts will have a hard time reforming and meeting new accountability demands without more help from businesses, nonprofits and philanthropists, according to a new book from the Brookings Institution.

“Making School Reform Work: New Partnerships for Real Change” outlines how private sector institutions can take over non-instructional tasks, freeing up school and district leaders to concentrate on teaching and learning.

“If they are going to improve, school districts must abandon some of their traditional roles,” said the book’s coeditor, Paul Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “They need to rely on other institutions to analyze data, manage school buildings, recruit teachers and principals, and maintain political support — things districts have tried to do for themselves but frequently bungled.”

The book argues that private engagement in urban schools should be constant — not episodic — and advances a concept of “third-way philanthropy” that encourages foundations, nonprofits and businesses to help create and maintain institutional capacities that school districts need but cannot provide for themselves.

Hill cited the Consortium for Chicago School Research as an independent group that supports reform in ways school districts themselves could never do.

“Whenever Chicago reforms get bogged down in politics or bureaucracy, the consortium makes that obvious to civic leaders and readers of the Chicago Tribune.” Hill said. “Though district leaders are often embarrassed, this early failure warning puts the city’s reform initiative back on track.”

Another example, he said, is the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, which has pressed for more school-level decision-making and accountability while four superintendents and eight school boards have come and gone.

“Both cities have a long way to go before their schools are as good as they need to be,” Hill said. “But both are making progress thanks to sustained reform strategies.”

“Every few years, businesses and foundations rush in and pick up big city districts when they fail,” added the book’s coeditor, James Harvey. “This isn’t what districts need. They need ongoing assistance with improving how they manage buildings, human resources and relationships with their communities.”

How can outsiders help? Seven chapters, all written by researchers at the UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, show how cities can create:

  • Civic oversight groups to formulate and sustain support for reforms.
  • Incubators to create new schools.
  • Real estate trusts to manage buildings better and find facilities for new schools.
  • Independent institutions to analyze school performance data and report on the progress and sticking points of reform.
  • New ways to strengthen teaching by attracting teachers from among the ablest college graduates.
  • Institutions to identify and develop principals who can lead schools in an environment of performance pressure and competition for students.
  • Inspectorates that can diagnose schools’ performance more richly than is possible via test scores alone.

This is the third and final book to emerge from Brookings’ urban public education initiative. Hill, Brookings nonresident senior fellow and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, led the work at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs. It was funded by a coalition of foundations including Alcoa, Smith-Richardson, Pew, Edna McConnell Clark and Joyce.


For more information, contact Hill at (206) 685-2214 or bicycle@u.washington.edu. The Center on Reinventing Public Education is on the Web at crpe.org