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Sense and Sustainability in Education Reform

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It's a question that's daunted educators for decades: Why haven't well-intentioned efforts to improve teaching and learning in our schools had the kind of impact we want and need? It's often called a failure of bringing reform to scale, but in reality many of the proposed changes to date haven't been big enough, focusing instead on narrow slices of instruction or school culture that, as principals and superintendents rotate through many of our most troubled schools and communities, often get discarded in midstream and replaced with yet other initiatives.

The good news is that this is changing. The question is whether our schools are prepared for these changes.

Across the country, our schools are preparing to put into place complex reforms that will shape education for many years to come -- the higher standards spelled out by the Common Core and the richer assessments that accompany them, as well as new approaches to preparing, developing, and evaluating educators. These wide-ranging reforms have the potential to be game-changers for all students, including those who have long been under-served. They will also require significant work at the local level to ensure that they're put into practice in ways that work well in all of our schools.

Changes of this scale can't just take place within the four walls of the classroom, the school building, or the district's central office -- they require partnerships between school leaders, educators, and the broader community they serve. Encouraging these partnerships has been one of the major goals of the NEA Foundation, and after supporting such efforts for nearly a decade, we're beginning to see what can happen when educators and community groups sustain collaborative efforts over time.

Consider Hamilton County, Tennessee, where the local school district, teacher's union, and public education foundation began working together in 2005 to improve instruction in a handful of the district's middle schools. The NEA Foundation provided the partnership a $2.5 million grant to support its work, but that money was intended to get the program off the ground, not sustain it indefinitely.

Now, eight years later, the program has grown to encompass all of the district's middle schools, buoyed by significant gains in student achievement. Equally promising, the coaching at the heart of the program will soon be completely funded by the district, not outside funds. "That gives it an excellent chance at sustainability," says the Public Education Foundation's Ishmahen Kangles.

As our efforts to support these kinds of partnerships have grown to 23 cities across the country, we spend a lot of time thinking about sustainability. And as we enter what former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley calls a "critical moment of transition in education reform," there's a growing understanding that community-based partnerships are exactly what's needed to support these broader efforts. "From personal experience, any education reform is difficult, but sustaining reform over any period of time is really difficult," Riley -- a key architect of the standards movement -- recently told a room full of educators and community leaders. "Better education is everybody's business, and we do it better when we do it together."

In districts across the country, these kinds of partnerships are providing ways for school leaders and educators to create realistic action plans that address the complexities of the Common Core and new evaluation systems mandated by state policymakers, often under tight timetables. In Massachusetts, a longstanding partnership between Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield Education Association has allowed school leaders and teachers to prepare for new assessments and targets tied to the state's evaluation system. "It's important that we work together to make sense of it all," says Superintendent Dan Warwick.

These partnerships also provide stability in the face of changing leadership in schools and the community -- stability that can sustain improvements over time. "We have a longstanding practice of building things together," said Mark Castellano, president of the Teacher's Association of Lee County, which is now working with the school district to collaboratively develop professional development around the Common Core.

And by bringing the broader community to the table, partnerships can help address what is perhaps the greatest challenge of the rigorous expectations laid down by the Common Core and other new standards: ensuring that our nation's most underprivileged students are given the opportunity to excel. "For many years, we've been talking about the achievement gap," John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, said recently. "It's time to move from a standards-based reform agenda to a support-based reform agenda."

That's been a key focus of many of the 23 sites supported by the Foundation. In Lee County, the district-union collaboration has incorporated socio-emotional learning into schools through an initiative that has increased student engagement and ownership in their learning, while in Springfield, MA, schools and educators have reached out to community organizations to address the social and emotional needs of students living in poverty and provide supports such as extended-year and early literacy programs in the community and in schools. Such efforts at coordinating support sound obvious, but they represent a significant break from the well-intentioned but isolating approach to local school governance that has characterized public education in this country for more than a century.

Nearly a decade after we began our work supporting collaborative efforts within and beyond school districts, we're now seeing that the approach represents a way for schools to tackle the broad-based changes they are facing in the Common Core and other reform efforts. The challenges facing our students and schools are great, but when passionate people, talented people, and committed people throw their energy in the same direction, we are seeing real results in our communities and our schools.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation. The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, and others who support public education initiatives. We partner with education unions, districts, and communities to create powerful, sustainable improvements in teaching and learning.