If you spend enough time listening to Patrick Dobard talk about the motivation behind his work, he’ll eventually tell you a story about a little girl named Precious. While visiting a brand-new school shortly after it opened, Dobard found Precious reading and asked her what she thought of her new learning community. Precious, briefly breaking away from her task, smiled up at him and answered with one word: “Perfect.”
Her new school replaced another that had failed to educate its students for decades. Both the closing of the failing school and the opening of a new, high-potential school were controversial decisions, but they sent a message to Precious, her family, and the New Orleans community that all the city’s students deserve a high-quality education.
As the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and former superintendent of Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Dobard is one of many education leaders who have implemented a strategy for transforming public education that empowers principals to make critical decisions for the benefit of their students, gives all families an opportunity to send their children to high-performing schools, and replaces chronically low-performing schools with high-performing and high-potential schools. The Center for Reinventing Public Education calls this the “portfolio strategy.” The Texas Education Agency refers to the model as “systems of great schools.” Whatever the strategy or the system is called, the fact is that eight very different cities have transformed their education systems using common principles and have seen increased student achievement over time.
New Orleans is one of eight U.S. cities that have seen more students attending more effective schools at a faster pace than in other urban areas. In the cities profiled here — Oakland, D.C., Denver, New Orleans, New York City, Newark, Camden, and Chicago — high-performing schools are increasing, and entire urban education systems are continuously improving. In Chicago, the graduation rate has skyrocketed 30 points since 2002. In Newark, the city’s schools went from the 44th percentile to the 81st percentile in average proficiency rank among demographically similar districts in New Jersey in seven years. Each of the other cities profiled here have equally impressive gains.
Importantly, each city researched has taken its own path.
The stories of systemic education transformation cannot be separated from the stories of the people who led the efforts. The superintendents, school principals, district leaders, parents, and activists featured in these stories — and countless others — worked tirelessly and made critical decisions that ultimately improved education outcomes for students.
And yet, these leaders will be the first to tell you that they made mistakes, would do things differently if they could, and that their cities still have a long way to go until their low-income students and students of color have the same outcomes and opportunities as their more affluent and white peers. Their successes and failures provide current leaders with a body of knowledge from which to build so that the next generation of urban education systems will be more sophisticated, equitable, and driven by the needs and desires of families.
This website was created to show current and future superintendents, members of boards of education, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments. The eight stories here combine the voices, portraits, and stories of real leaders with academic research and data to surface actionable and practical lessons for leaders, for other cities, and for the field. Perhaps the most important lesson is that systemic change that benefits all students is possible.
Others have created high-quality toolkits or playbooks for creating or implementing a citywide education strategy, so you won’t find those resources here. You also won’t find an endorsement for one approach versus another, because each local context is different. All eight cities took their own routes based on what was right for their communities. And lastly, you won’t find every leader reflected in our photography or an exhaustive history of every city’s strategy in our text. Instead, the stories focus on discrete aspects that will be particularly instructive to other education system leaders.
You can begin reading anywhere. Each story has a list of takeaways at the top and takes roughly 13 minutes to read, longer if you explore the embedded links or resources. Feel free to share individual stories or the entire site with those you think will be interested in learning more.
The following organizations are or were clients or funders of Bellwether: New Schools for New Orleans and Center for Reinventing Public Education. Bellwether authors maintained editorial control of these stories.
Last updated on October 23, 2018