Cincinnati schools have tough choices but big opportunities

 

The Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is at a critical juncture. There's a levy on the ballot in November and three school board seats to be filled. The district also is searching for a new superintendent. The tough decisions on tap will have an enormous impact in a district where 43 percent of students attend schools rated in academic watch or academic emergency, despite significant academic progress.

A recent--and top-notch--report conducted by McKinsey & Company offered a number of useful and necessary suggestions for improving governance and central administration at CPS, including building a new performance management system that deepens accountability, reinforcing financial oversight to enable effective deployment of resources, and focusing more on policy setting and strategic planning. Work is underway in the district to implement the long list of suggested changes (see here).

As the board shifts its attention to policy and strategic planning, board members ought to consider some innovative ideas that would encourage real and systemic change as the new superintendent and board tackle the difficult task of creating the district anew.

First, poorly performing schools should be shuttered. It makes no sense to have children languishing in failing schools year after year. Currently, there are 34 district schools on the bottom two rungs of the state's ratings ladder. The district should implement a strategy of replacing nonfunctioning schools by replicating good ones. Cincinnati need only to look to the Chicago Public Schools' Renaissance 2010 where the poorest-performing schools are being pruned and replaced with 100 great, new schools.

There are great public schools in Cincinnati that can serve as templates, schools that are proving that children from low-income neighborhoods with diverse populations can achieve at very high levels. Three CPS schools and two city charter schools were recently awarded the "Schools of Promise" designation by the Ohio Department of Education for outstanding academic performance during the 2006-2007 school year (see here). Sadly, the highest-performing schools, such as the Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy and the Clark Montessori School, have wait lists and lotteries to get in. Why not target energy and resources toward replicating these high-performing and highly demanded schools?

Second, one-size-fits-all education just doesn't work anymore and Cincinnati should consider creating a more diverse portfolio of schools to serve varying student needs. Districts like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia all offer diverse options to parents, including traditional and charter schools as well as schools run by universities and nonprofits. Cincinnati already offers a number of excellent magnet schools but it's not enough. The district needs to scour the country and recruit the best school developers, charter-school networks, nonprofit partners, and technical assistance providers to open new schools or to transform existing schools. Columbus already is doing this by recruiting the highly successful KIPP model of schools (see here). The first Ohio KIPP school will open in Columbus in July 2008.

Finally, CPS should better align incentives and rewards with student performance. This means providing better support to struggling teachers and letting them go if they are not helping kids learn. Further, the district ought to develop a more robust career ladder and the best teachers should be identified and paid the most--moves that would keep teachers in the classroom rather than forcing them to move to administrative jobs to earn more money. Administrators should be creative in recruiting teachers. Partnerships with universities, businesses, and nonprofit organizations such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project can help build a talent pipeline to Cincinnati. The very best teachers from across the country should be recruited and the best teachers already in the district should be supported and valued highly.

Great teachers and good schools make a huge difference.

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