Next steps in Norfolk

Jennifer Leischer

Norfolk Public Schools finally brought home the big one - the $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education. A bridesmaid in the competition each year from 2002 to 2004, the district took top honors this year based on the strength of increased reading and math scores, improved graduation rates, and significant reduction in ethnic achievement gaps. (These are profiled here.) The district is, indeed, a worthy champion.

But what's the next step? To find out, we went straight to the source: Norfolk's new superintendent, Dr. Stephen C. Jones.

For education reformers, there's good and bad news. Let's lead with the good.

Norfolk has embraced a data-driven approach to classroom learning. And it's paid off. Reading scores, according to the Broad Foundation, are up 14 percentage points among elementary students over the past four years, and 12 percentage points among middle school students. Superintendent Jones wants to build on this. The district has adopted a web-based program used to track and analyze reading data on every K-2 student. In the coming years, all grades will use this system. The goal, according to Jones, is that "all high school graduates [be] 'powerfully literate'" by 2010.

Further, the data are used to hold not just students and teachers accountable, but principals and board members as well. "Data has to drive all we do," says Jones.

Now for the bad news.

Jones recognizes that one of his biggest problems is deploying his workforce strategically. "Education is one of the few industries where CEOs can't assign staff where the needs are." One way to do that is to build incentives for teachers to work with the most challenging student populations. In principle, Jones likes the idea. And there are school board members who would like to examine the idea more closely. But Jones has yet to make overtures to the unions, and he concedes that differentiated pay is "not a number 1 priority."

When pushed to describe what pay incentives for teachers might look like, were they to be adopted, Jones's vision is hardly radical. He showed no interest in tying teachers' pay to their students' performance. Bonuses distributed equally to all teachers in schools that make Adequate Yearly Progress, he says, would be fine. But paying more to teachers who realize greater student achievements than to those who realize less success won't fly with him. There are ways to reward teachers, he says, without giving it to them "in their paychecks."

Hiring teachers from sources other than education schools fares only moderately better. As a leader in Baltimore's school system, Jones used alternatively certified teachers to fill gaps in special education. But special education in Baltimore is hardly a model of efficiency. (See here and here.) Jones did say that Norfolk's Virginia Wesleyan College has expressed interest in establishing some sort of alternative certification program that would benefit the city's schools, but details are sketchy.

Jones has bold goals for Norfolk's students. By 2010:

- All students possess the habits of powerful literacy;

- All students access exciting options and opportunities upon graduation;

- All schools exceed state and national performance standards;

- All achievement gaps are closed.

Whether or not these goals can be accomplished without breaking the teacher unions' stranglehold on their members' salaries and the education schools' stranglehold on teacher preparation remains to be seen.

Educators of all stripes will be watching.

"Norfolk's teachers win Broad acclaim," The Virginian-Pilot, September 23, 2005

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