in the zone

‘A revolutionary level of trust’: Empower Schools CEO on how Tennessee could partner to turn around Chattanooga schools

PHOTO: Eric Haynes/Edward M. Kennedy Institute.
Chris Gabrieli, left, is the CEO of Empower Schools.

When state education officials met Thursday with Chattanooga leaders to discuss their newest idea for how to improve struggling schools there, they weren’t alone.

In the room was Chris Gabrieli, the architect of the “Empowerment Zone” in Springfield, Massachusetts — the model for what could happen in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city. State officials would call their version a “partnership zone.”

Gabrieli is working with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to help local officials understand the approach, in which clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. He’s also interested in helping the city if it decides to go forward with the zone, one of several options for intervening in schools that have struggled the longest.

“We’ve made it clear we’d be in a position to help if they say yes,” Gabrieli said.

Chalkbeat sat down with Gabrieli at this week’s New Schools Venture Fund Summit in California. Here are the highlights. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Chalkbeat: What is the partnership model and what is your role in bringing it to Tennessee?

Gabrieli: Empower Schools, the nonprofit I’m the CEO of, works in partnership with communities to help them consider how new structures and approaches could allow them to get schools they want and the results their students need.

Communities often want schools that, for example, follow the existing student assignment patterns. Those are usually very important to the community and thought through for years. Often, with high schools, there’s a huge commitment from the community and it’s a place people care about. And they want to see that school continue in some similar fashion.

So there are things people want out of their schools that they want to preserve, but I think in some cases they know they need to do some things differently to get the results.

So how could you structure something like that? Our work is just to partner with them to see what a pathway to setting up a structure like that could be — one that could bring more change, more boldness, more energy, at each school while still preserving the role of that school as a member of that school district.

Where the state has such strong interest, as it does in Tennessee, with the outcome of these schools — having at least two of them be eligible to be taken over by the ASD — rather than having the state take an independent action, it can really partner with the district. In Tennessee, they’re calling it partnership zone. The partnership is between the state and the district. And people can scoff, say it’s somewhat involuntary of a partnership. Maybe. But I would say, instead of the state unilaterally acting, which it has the authority to do, it is saying, let’s together look at what the best plan is.

If people can get away from that focus on power and instead focusing more on what are the right structures, I think the chance for our students, usually disadvantaged students, goes higher. Our role is to show people it’s been done elsewhere.

What edge does this model have on others that have fallen short in Tennessee and beyond?

There are always really good things to build on. And Chattanooga has some really good things: really good educators, good programs that have got some momentum. We never find, even in schools that are really struggling, that it’s the case that no one good is being tried and nobody good is there. That’s a parody. But clearly it’s not working and changing fast enough in those places.

When you say you’re just going to take a school over, close it, bring in a charter operator, and start anew, you’re just saying, nothing was working. Nobody who was involved will probably be kept on. Somehow, somebody from outside will do better. I understand that theory, but people feel like there’s a lot of friction cost in that, a lot of inefficiencies, a lot of things missed about what’s going on. On the other hand, if it was really going well enough, the state wouldn’t be flagging these schools as not objectively delivering high enough outcomes for students. People in the districts know it.

So, unlocking bolder change, but doing it in the context of giving the benefit of the doubt to a lot of the existing people and programs is what’s different.

How does this compare to to the Innovation Zone in Shelby County and the Achievement School District, two high-profile school improvement efforts that are already underway?

These schools were in an I Zone in Hamilton County. They have the ability to get some different conditions, but these I Zones don’t have a stable, independent governing structure. The schools are still reporting to the district.

In Springfield, for example, the district delegates operational and managerial authority to the zone and the staff they hire. The I Zone is not a delegated authority situation. They’re saying, we ourselves are going to choose to do some things differently, and we run them still, versus, we know things might need to let things work differently and we’re choosing to allow others to run these schools. And we’re a part of it, but it’s not us.

One thing that’s different from an I Zone is that we would encourage that board, and we have encouraged the board in Springfield, to also be willing to make choices and bring in totally different programs at schools that are not working. In Springfield, of the nine schools this year, three are run by very different people from outside. Six are run by people from there. They’ve had a chance to basically restart. In one case it’s an organization, a nonprofit operator, and in two cases it’s individuals who came in and are building a whole new school. They’re hiring entirely new people, taking an entirely different approach.

So, improvement is the top strategy. But change where it’s needed is something we think zoned boards have to have the backbone to do. Getting that blend right is important.

To some degree, the ASD is, change ‘em all. To some degree, an I Zone is, improve ‘em all. We say, improve as many as we can and change the ones we can’t. That’s what most people want. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to people if we can. And if they aren’t getting it done, they don’t get an infinite window.

What are the key elements of the partnership model and what could change in schools?

Three key pieces. One is that there would be an independent board, with the majority of the folks not being elected officials but independent folks — ideally who are from same community — who can make a fresh set of choices and ensure the schools’ autonomy continues. With the minority of the board being the elected and appointed officials. Having members of the school board is a very good idea. These are still Hamilton County schools.

The second is a clear contract that would assign most of the money and those key levers: who gets hired, what curriculum is used, what schedule is followed, what the budget is. That’s set at the zone level and the school level.

In Tennessee, there isn’t the third element of the collective bargaining process. It’s those two.

That structure allows the schools to then go through the redesign process to say, what curriculum do we need to add? How do we raise teacher skills? What hours should we operate? With support from partners.

How it exactly it would work in Chattanooga would be different than how it exactly works in Springfield, but the elements would be the same ones to be settled. The big two would be allocation of financial resources — how much of the money per student goes to the schools to be used flexibly and how much stays with the district for the use of the buildings and other supports — and what decision-making authorities are given over to the zone.

Along with that would be the performance milestones the zone would have to make to continue to go on. This is all about performance. Individual schools have to perform and the zone has to work. If the zone doesn’t work, it should go away. The board really has to be accountable.

In Lawrence [Massachusetts] — where we were quite involved, but the structure was different — and in Springfield, where the structure would be very similar — we’ve seen that, with support from outside, with partners helping, a lot of existing people have plenty of appetite to take on the kind of things that need to be done.

A simple example is the school schedule. There’s lots of data that show that for high-poverty kids, who often have few great choices outside the school building for academic or non-academic opportunities, a longer school day — that allows them to get more core academics and more arts, music, drama, sports — is a really important idea. And it also means giving teachers more time to work together, to collaborate, to use data. That’s also a good idea. But usually traditions of district structures and compensation lock in an outdated calendar.

So one of the autonomies schools get in any zone we’d want to be a part of is the ability to set the right school schedule. It doesn’t have to be identical for each school. But generally, if you want kids to succeed, you need more time. That also means you need to pay teachers more for that. That’s fair. Saying, do the same job for more hours for no more pay doesn’t strike working adults as fair. So you’ve got to have more resource flexibility. These all flow together into something where you can work faster and better.

Isn’t it possible that this kind of shared governance model might just be creating yet another layer of bureaucracy?

This usually comes out of circumstance of underperformance, so these schools have a lot of anxiety. They’ve been a part of innovation zones, and they wonder, is this the next thing? We’re trying to say, you tell us what you think it would take to succeed. Frankly, we don’t often ask in education, what do you need. We tend to say, new program! Personalized learning! Singapore math!

Part of what we’re able to do is expose them to how this has played out in other schools. Some remain concerned that whatever it is, it might be bad. Others react and say, this would be really different. We could rise to this. We like the chance to do new things.

When you move most of the money and decisionmaking all the way to the school, it’s the least bureaucratic possible. The presence of the board is in part to make sure it happens. There’s a lot of policymaking about schools that happens very far from schools. One of the things we really encourage, is to say, OK, let’s make decisions at the school.

In Springfield, how can they afford to pay [teachers] more for more time without there being more state money going in? The answer is, they get 85 percent of per-pupil funding and can make those decisions. It feels like the opposite of bureaucracy. We had one principal and their teacher talking to their governor, who had come to visit the school. They told him, we’re thinking of changing to have one fewer janitor and another teacher. I don’t think that’s bureaucratic.

If the board of this entity becomes very involved and micromanages, it would be bureaucracy. If they empower schools — and my organization is called Empower Schools — it feels the opposite. It’s a revolutionary level of trust.

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”

across the pond

Does England’s rapid expansion of charter-like ‘academies’ hold a lesson for the U.S.?

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants more schools to be free from what she characterizes as ineffective, bureaucratic rules.

“In too many places there isn’t the kind of autonomy at a building level to really kind of break out of that mold and do things differently to meet students’ needs,” DeVos said in a recent interview.

But is that autonomy itself likely to improve schools?

A new study offers a sobering answer: England’s mass conversion of primary schools to “academies,” which function in some ways like charter schools in the United States, did not produce any academic gains for students. (Incidentally, DeVos met this week with Jo Johnson, a United Kingdom education minister; a spokesperson for DeVos said the meeting focused on higher education.)

And although exporting lessons from other countries is an inherently fraught exercise, the English experience provides a cautionary tale — and aligns with research from the U.S. In short, there’s little evidence that providing schools with additional freedom will, on its own, boost student achievement.

Great Britain’s far-reaching effort to inject autonomy into its schools

England has a system of schools known as “academies” that are overseen by a board of directors and organized as nonprofits. The academies are not bound by national rules for staffing and curriculum, though they are authorized by England’s national Department for Education.

Unlike most American charter schools, many academies were existing schools that moved outside the control of a school district, either by choice or by government mandate. England also has allowed for the creation of “free schools,” which function like academies but start from scratch.

Academies first hatched in the early 2000s, and for about a decade they grew slowly and were used mostly in an attempt to improve low-performing secondary (upper-grade) schools. That initial effort did lead to significant gains in student achievement.

In 2010, a new Conservative government supported the dramatic expansion of academies, including among primary (lower-grade) schools. By the 2016-17 school year, nearly one in four primary schools and most of England’s secondary schools were academies.

Using language similar to DeVos’s, Michael Gove, then the British education secretary, highlighted the appeal of academies to skeptics of state regulation. “Schools are taking up our offer to become academies because they recognise the huge benefits – more autonomy, more power to teachers, and an opportunity to thrive, free from interference from government,” Gove said in 2011.

But this policy doesn’t seemed to have improved student achievement in lower-grade schools, as purveyors like Gove, hoped, according to a new peer-reviewed study. The analysis, conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics, finds that primary schools that became academies between 2010–11 and 2014–15 did not see gains in on the national test given at the end of primary school at age 11.

“The English government has radically restructured its school system under an assumption that academisation delivers benefits to schools and students,” the authors write. “There is neither any sign of a positive effect nor any suggestion that benefits might be increasing with years of exposure. If anything, the opposite is the case.”

Academies that were not part of what is a called a multi-academy trust — roughly equivalent to a charter management organization — seemed to have negative effects on student achievement.

To isolate the impact of “academisation,” the researchers compare schools that became academies between 2010-11 and 2014-15 to other schools before they became academies in later school years. The study does not look at measures beyond test scores or the effects of the policy beyond the first few years.

An important question is whether and how academies used their newfound autonomy. According to an analysis by the British government, about half of primary schools changed their curriculum, how they evaluated teachers, and who was in school leadership. Relatively few lengthened the school day or hired uncertified teachers.

The latest study finds that academies also received more money than schools that didn’t convert to academies. Most of those additional resources went toward administrative costs. That’s consistent with evidence from the U.S. showing that charter schools spend more on administration, perhaps because they lack the economies of scale of larger districts. The extra money may have been one reason so many schools became academies.

The research does not examine how local school districts were affected by the swift expansion of academies, but other work suggests they suffered as they lost money.

“Reduced funding forced many of the local authorities to reduce their staffs and made it more difficult for them to maintain high quality school support personnel,” wrote Helen Ladd and Ted Fiske, American researchers who looked the British academies experiment.

Does this matter for the U.S.?

The England-based research is fairly consistent with the limited research in the United States on the academic benefits of injecting autonomy into existing schools. A 2014 study found that an initiative in Chicago Public Schools to provide more freedom to principals of high-performing schools did not lead to gains in overall student achievement. Research in Boston and Denver showed that “pilot” and “innovation” school initiatives — where schools elect to take on certain flexibilities — have not improved student test scores.

The charter school research is somewhat complicated. In both Boston and Denver, those same studies show charter schools producing big gains.

In general, though, charters perform comparably to traditional public schools on standardized tests. This suggests that specific practices — rather than autonomy itself — are responsible for the success of some charters.

Ladd, a Duke professor who has also studied charter schools in North Carolina, argues that the English experience points to the limits of autonomy.

“Flexibility may be one step, but, by itself, I’ve seen very little evidence that it can address in any serious way the problems of struggling schools,” she said.