New York’s District 2 paved the way

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Lily Woo, the principal at P.S. 130 in New York City, tries to visit every classroom in her school for a few minutes each day. “If I miss a day or two,” says Woo, “a teacher will say, ‘You haven’t stopped by. I want the children to show you something.’ I’m invited in.”

That wasn’t always the case. When Woo was hired as a principal 14 years ago by Anthony Alvarado, then-superintendent for New York’s Community School District 2, most principals were infrequent classroom observers. Alvarado changed that.

Reforms he introduced in the 1980s included walkthroughs—brief classroom visits by combinations of district administrators and educators—and other sharing practices such as pairing new teachers with mentor-teachers for several weeks, and convening principals and teachers to work jointly on curricula and staff development projects.

Principals were asked to become instructional leaders for their schools. Monthly principal meetings under Alvarado, for example, focused primarily on instruction, with only brief mention of administrative issues, says Woo. “I put in 14-hour days,” she says. “There was major professional development for everyone.”

By the mid-1990s, District 2 test scores jumped from the middle of the pack of 32 districts to 2nd, leading other urban school systems around the country to take notice. Chicago, Boston and San Diego are among those attempting to replicate District 2’s success.

It’s not easily done. Richard Elmore, a Harvard University professor who has written extensively about District 2, says school districts trying to copy its model often implement superficial quick fixes, such as walkthroughs, that won’t work if done in isolation.

“Walkthroughs are incredibly easy,” Elmore says. “All you have to do is walk around, and it looks like you’re doing it. But if you don’t rebuild the [school] culture and you just put the practice down on top, it isn’t going to have an impact.”

Without a culture change, he says, the walkthrough is about supervision and evaluation rather than improving teaching. When walkthroughs are poorly conceived, “teachers are being evaluated on the spot by someone who typically knows little about good teaching,” he explains. “Walkthroughs aren’t going to do anything if you don’t have work going on around instruction. Someone has to be in the classrooms working with these teachers in content-specific ways.”

New practices evolved from joint effort

Walkthroughs in District 2 evolved; there was no preconceived plan, says Tom Nardone, a former District 2 principal. Being part of that evolution made it easier for District 2 principals to buy into the practice, says Nardone, who as a consultant has helped Chicago and Boston train instructional leaders to conduct walkthroughs.

“When Tony was developing the walkthrough,” he says, “we were co-developing it with him. It wasn’t someone coming in and saying, ‘Here’s how to do this.’ We all developed it together.”

The collaboration of district administrators and educators in District 2 gave it an advantage Chicago doesn’t have, Nardone notes. “In District 2, I was part of a professional community that already had a vision. We had an opportunity to bring new people on board and start from the beginning. In Chicago, you’re working with people who are already in place and that’s sometimes a very different kind of approach.”

Woo estimates that 70 percent of the schools in District 2 had new principals within Alvarado’s first five years as superintendent. Some retired, others left because the demands were so great, and still others were forced out. Many of the replacements were high-performing teachers who had not previously been principals.

“They only did it because Tony asked them to do it,” Elmore says. “The district needed people who knew about instruction.”

The teaching ranks also were overhauled, with the teacher turnover estimated to be as high as 50 percent during Alvarado’s tenure. While Elmore agrees that District 2’s success was, “heavily influenced by the strategy of bringing in new people,” he doesn’t think it’s a prerequisite for other school systems copying its school improvement model.

“Huge turnover is not necessary to make this work,” Elmore says. “You do have to make quality judgments and be willing to tell people at the bottom if their work isn’t satisfactory, you’ll get rid of them.”

New York schools reverse course

What is necessary, say several people who worked in District 2, is the kind of collegial culture that developed under Alvarado’s leadership. That culture received a shake-up early this year, when the New York City schools announced it would consolidate 32 districts into 10 “instructional leadership divisions,” each led by a region superintendent. Divisions are split into networks of 10 to 12 schools, which in turn are led by local instructional supervisors.

According to a press release, the reorganization reduces the staff at the district offices from 4,800 to fewer than 2,400, saving the city more than $100 million.

However, the trend is just the opposite in large urban school districts, which are being subdivided into smaller clusters, not larger ones, and are providing those clusters with instructional support, not just administrative support. Chicago, for example, expanded from six regions into 24 areas a year ago and hired area instructional officers to lead each one.

Boston’s public schools are divided into groups of approximately 15 schools, which facilitates communities of principals and teachers who work together on instruction. Ideally, they will visit each other’s buildings and share best practices, says Juliette D. Johnson, Boston’s deputy superintendent for clusters and school leaders.

Within the clusters, Boston’s principals, teachers and cluster leaders perform walkthroughs, which they call learning walks, in their own and each other’s schools. Learning walks allow for visits as long as 20 minutes per classroom, depending on what’s being observed. (By contrast, CPS walkthrough teams visit classrooms for no more than five minutes.)

Johnson wants principals to spend a third to half of their day in classrooms, but most aren’t there yet, she says. “We’re working with them to prioritize their time so that good, quality time is spent in classrooms every day,” Johnson says. “We aren’t going to realize the kind of change we want until we get principals in the classrooms.”

The Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit group that partners with the Boston district on professional development and literacy, has been working for two years with a group of 26 “effective practice” schools, named for their success in working on reform, says Senior Program Officer Lisa Lineweaver.

Learning walks have been helpful in getting those schools to focus on instruction. “It gives you a new set of eyes on the work going on in your building,” Lineweaver says, “and it’s a great focusing tool. It’s been very powerful.”

Reforms get mixed response in San Diego

San Diego also has attempted to duplicate District 2’s reform model, but reaction from educators has been mixed, at best.

Alvarado left District 2 in the late 1990s to become San Diego’s chancellor of instruction, a position he retired from this summer. Upon arriving, Alvarado grouped San Diego schools into nine divisions, each with an instructional leader responsible for about 25 schools. Principals received extensive professional development, teaching coaches were hired for every school and walkthroughs became a staple.

Researchers from the University of Washington’s Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy found a gradual rise in San Diego test scores, and a survey of principals found most of them valued walkthroughs, teacher coaches and their roles as instructional leaders.

Teachers, on the other hand, were resistant to what they viewed as a top-down approach that left them out of the loop. “There was a climate of distrust in the district,” says Amy Hightower, a former Stanford University professor who studied San Diego’s reforms. “The union wasn’t happy about a number of things, including walkthroughs.” Among teachers’ concerns were whether walkthroughs were evaluative, how principals would use the notes they jotted down during classroom visits and how the practice would affect promotion or tenure, she adds.

Although Alvarado has left San Diego public schools, his reforms will continue this year, and other districts around the country continue to copy them.

“A number of districts,” says Hightower, “now are focusing not only on the walkthroughs, but on the whole role of the principal in instruction. You’re seeing it more and more.”