Orchard Gardens Against the Machine

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Yvonne Abraham’s column this week bemoaned the resignation of Andrew Bott from the Orchard Gardens School in Roxburyto take the helm of the K-8 Lincoln School in Brookline

The column and most of the commentary I’ve heard focuses on why Mr. Bott, by all accounts an effective principal, is leaving.

To the Boston public schools’ long list of woes, add this one: Andrew Bott is leaving.

Bott is the principal of Orchard Gardens K-8, the Roxbury school that has become the shining, nationally recognized poster child for successful turnaround efforts. A few years ago, the school defined failure and faced a state takeover. Bott, equipped with a strong vision, federal funds, and autonomy to hire teachers, brought about staggering improvements in student performance.

And now he is leaving, not just Orchard Gardens, but the entire Boston system. Come September, he’ll lead a school in Brookline.

It’s a seismic event and, for fans like me, a very troubling one.

I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Bott is a talented school leader — and there are too few in our district schools.  The basic point that Abraham is making, which is that John McDonough and all the other public school superintendents need to give their principal more control over budgets, hiring and firing, and school mission, is spot on.  But Andrew Bott is not likely moving to the Public Schools of Brookline for flexibility.  While the Brookline schools have many strengths, most principals I’ve spoken to in the district don’t feel flexibility from on high is one of them.

Writers often lean on conflict as a driving narrative element, with man vs. self, another man, society or nature being the core types of conflict scaffolding for the story.  Abraham’s piece leans hard on the man vs. society meme (here more like man-vs-Kafkaesque-Machine), and that narrative speaks volumes about how unsustainable people really think in-district reforms are.  This narrative of the heroic superintendent (Michelle Rhee and others) or miracle-worker (too many to mention) is aggravating beyond belief to anyone who thinks about what will really move the needle in public education or actually cares about sustainable and productive relations with teachers in the classroom.

Let’s take the last point first.  As noted, I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Bott was an awesome leader.  But I am absolutely certain that given Orchard Gardens’ progress, it was not only his hand at work here.  Success in a school takes leadership, yes, but also the sweat equity of the people doing the actual work in the classroom.  

Clearly, this narrative of the leader hero not only demeans the role of teachers, it’s a huge risk.  If Orchard Gardens’ progress rests on Bott’s staying put, that’s a very tenuous policy to base your public school progress on.  It means you have to chain every effective school leader’s legs to his or her desk in order to get real, sustainable progress in inner city schools.

But let’s be even more blunt. Orchard Gardens is a successful turnaround.  But it is also a case study in the problem with case studies.   Let’s start with the big picture.  I know that the US Department of Education wants to underscore Orchard Gardens as proof of the viability of its massive turnaround school strategy, which Secretary Duncan promoted via the School Improvement Grants (and which supported OG at a high clip).   Here is an official USED blog taking a good deal of credit for Orchard Gardens:

Orchard Gardens is a K-8 school in Roxbury, Mass., which has undergone a dramatic transformation. When it opened in 2003, the school was designated as one of the lowest performing schools in the state. In 2009, the school became part of the Boston Public Schools’ Arts Expansion Initiative, and received a federal School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2012, Orchard Gardens became a Turnaround Arts Initiative school, through the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.

Since 2009, students’ math proficiency scores have improved from six percent to 34 percent. English scores improved from 13 percent to 43 percent proficiency, from 2009 to 2013. Orchard Gardens provides student-specific interventions, coordinated by two full-time school site coordinators. Through community partnerships, students receive health and social services supports.

John Thompson’s kind take on the SIG program is here.  Andy Smarick was more to the point.  After one year of the SIG effort, he noted,

the Department released dreadful first-year SIG data, results far worse than even an inveterate turnaround skeptic would’ve predicted. Fully one-third of schools receiving SIG funding and interventions had either made no progress or actually gotten worse.

The Department continued on its turnaround path promising better results with time.  (This may remind you of the kind of promises Extended Day proponents have been making for some time.)  So, what were the findings after $5 billion invested into this effort and two years of data?

[T]his year’s results obstinately give lie to the notion that time and money are on the administration’s side…

Despite another year of lots of money and lots of effort, the first SIG cohort made virtually no progress: We’re two years in, and still one-third of these schools have gone backward or remained in neutral.

Orchard Gardens was one of the few outsized successes for the federal SIG program.  For that we should be thankful and applaud Bott, his leadership team, OG’s teachers and OG’s students.  But let’s also go back and do a gut check on the level of progress OG’s students have made.  Are we really ready to call a success a school where 2 out of 5 children are proficient?  I hope not.  We should applaud and keep focused on going further.

To put a finer point on it, think about this: when Mike Goldstein left the helm of Match Education (arguably one of the finest charter school networks in the country) to join Bridge International Academies (which has developed in a short span of years 134 schools serving over 50,000 children in Africa), no one bellyached or frankly worried too much about what would happen to the performance in Match’s network.  It’s because everyone knew that the next leader would have the flexibility the school has enjoyed in the past and that it was likely, therefore, to continue to get steady 95-plus percent proficiency.  We knew the schools’ mission would not change, that there was teacher buy-in to Match’s mission, and that it was and would remain focused on results.  We all knew that Match would be closed if it began to falter.

That’s sustainable reform.  Just something for the in-district reform crowd to mull over.

Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.