Coffee Break: District Turnaround Expert Karen Hawley Miles Wants No Nonsense in Her Coffee and No Nonsense in Our Schools

Apr 16, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

Karen Hawley Miles is the president and executive director of Education Resource Strategies, Inc. (ERS), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that helps turn around low-performing school districts. She is also a teacher, is widely-published and she co-authored "The Strategic School: Making the Most of People, Time and Money." Over a cup of coffee she shared her thoughts on her work and the larger movement to improve public education. Do you drink coffee or tea? How do you take it? Coffee, black. ERS has built a solid reputation doing something that many people think is nearly impossible, which is turning around struggling school districts. Why is this work so hard? Districts are large, complex organizations, so you can’t just change one thing to “fix” what’s wrong. Instead, district leaders need to redesign many interconnected pieces of the system to create a supportive environment for great schools to thrive. Moreover, leaders have to be willing and able to change things that have been done the same way for a long time—for example, the structure of the teaching job and compensation, the top-down culture of the central office or the one-size-fits-all classroom structure. All of these are perpetuated by mindsets, policies, contracts and systems that make them hard—but not impossible—to change. This work can take decades and benefits from stable leadership. Most legislatures, school boards and philanthropists don’t have the patience to wait that long. I've heard you speak about "people, time and money" as the way you approach the challenge of improving school districts. Explain how that works. Everything that happens in a district is made possible by those three resources. With limited resources, it’s critical that every dollar, every minute and every person is aligned with the district’s goals and makes a difference for kids. So instead of looking at individual programs or initiatives to add on top of what schools are doing, [pullquote position="right"]we focus on how leaders organize and allocate people, time and money.[/pullquote] For example, we can look at how student schedules allocate time across a day or year, and ask whether it supports their learning needs. Or how much time teachers spend planning, instructing or in “duties.” Or we can look at whether schools get equitable funding based on their student needs. For some time now, there has been a lively debate around governance (school choice) and accountability. Are we moving beyond these debates and focusing more on curriculum and instruction? I hope so. People who have devoted their careers to this work all care about the same thing—better results for kids. And it does feel like there is momentum to look hard at what has worked and what has not and adjust our strategies based on that. In some of the most successful district stories—Denver, the Recovery School District in New Orleans, or D.C. for example—both charter schools and traditional schools have been part of the answer. We need to keep learning from both sectors and work to raise the game and level the playing field in terms of funding, policy regulation and student needs. Last year, district and charter leaders in Oakland partnered to share data on student demographics, resource levels and spending to identify gaps and next steps. Similarly, there's been a lot of debate around union-management relations and we are seeing teachers increasingly active—striking for example—even in red states with weak unions. Where have you seen labor-management collaboration succeed? One example we’ve seen is in Lawrence, Massachusetts, under the leadership of the state receiver, Jeff Riley. Though it has been rocky at times, Riley and the Lawrence Teachers Union worked together on a contract that established a five-tiered compensation system tied to a robust career ladder, and one turnaround school was managed in partnership with the union. Lawrence schools have improved significantly under receivership, and the teachers just signed another contract with 88 percent support from union members. Another great example is Tulsa Public Schools, where district leaders recently supported the teacher walkout, because leaders know the average Oklahoma teachers makes 13 percent less than a living wage. I've noticed a lot of shifting priorities among funders and school districts replacing leadership every few years. Do we have an impatience problem in education? What kind of expectations should we have for bringing about real change—five years, 10, 20? Again, this change is hard. We have to transform so many things—culture, processes, structures, skill sets. It takes an extended period of dedicated, integrated, focused work to do it right. We should hold our school and district leaders accountable for articulating a vision of where they want to go, for developing plans and strategies for getting there and for making progress on leading indicators along with outcomes. But we also need to give them space to experiment, sometimes fail and then adjust. They need time to take on the myriad pieces of the puzzle that all need to be in place to ensure great schools for all students.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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