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Supt. explains Hartford’s big turnaround

Hartford, Conn., is the second poorest city in America, in the second wealthiest state in the nation. When Steven Adamowski took over as superintendent in 2006, the district had a four-year graduation rate of 29 percent. Less than a third of the city’s children were learning to read by the end of the third grade.

Adamowski, a veteran educator, set about creating a system where high-performing schools gain autonomy and low-performing schools get attention and intervention – and then replaced if they don’t get better. In 2008 and in 2009, Hartford was named the most improved school district in Connecticut. Friday, Adamowski sat down with Education News Colorado before speaking about reform at a downtown Denver hotel.

6 questions for Steven Adamowski

Ed News: For those who don’t know much about what’s happening in Hartford, what’s the quick summary of what you’re doing there?
Adamowski: This is all about closing the achievement gap … the National Assessment of Educational Progress has documented that Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the nation. So when our reform began in 2006, we were the poster child for the achievement gap. Our reform strategy and supporting policies, everything we’re doing in Hartford, is really designed to close the achievement gap for our students.

There are two fundamental pillars of our reform – one is our managed performance empowerment theory of action and the other is an all-choice system of schools. As a result of those two pillars, we have made some progress in creating a portfolio of higher-performing distinctive schools of choice.

Ed News: What is the managed performance empowerment theory of action?

Adamowski: The most centralized theory of action is managed instruction, where the district has the one best model. Everybody’s in the same reading program … and you assess how schools are doing based on their fidelity to the model.

The opposite end of that spectrum is performance empowerment. That’s where a district says, look, we’re going to just concentrate on five things – we’re going to set standards, we’re going to create a level playing field, we’ll ensure equity, we’ll build capacity and we’ll hold schools accountable for performance. Not unlike an artist who manages a portfolio of their best work, our job is not going to be to run the schools but our work will involve dropping low performers and adding higher performers.

Somewhere in between that is this managed performance empowerment theory of action, where you define your relationship with each school on the basis of its performance. So in our theory of action, we give a very high level of autonomy to schools that are high-performing or are improving rapidly. We intervene in the lowest-performing schools. And in those schools that continue to be low-performing over a period of two years, those are the schools we close and redesign and replace them with new schools.

Ed News: What are your criteria for that closure or change?

Adamowski: You have to have a way of classifying your schools and measuring them in a certain way. We use something called an overall school index, which is something a number of states use. It’s a good way of dealing with multiple subjects tested and multiple grades tested in the same school.

We put our schools on a matrix. Connecticut has three categories of achievement – you’re either below proficient, proficient or goal range.  Proficient would be relevant here. We say a school is declining if it loses more than four percent, it’s staying the same if it bounces around in a range of four percent and it’s improved significantly if it increases more than 4 percent. That’s keyed statistically to our assessment system in Connecticut.

You have to have clear-cut transparent measures. Our first year closing schools for the purpose of redesign was very controversial. In the subsequent year, last year, it became less so. And it’s more a part of our culture now where people accept the logical premise that a school that is failing its students generation after generation, year after year, should not be allowed to continue to exist.

We started with about 45 schools and we have about 60 now. We’ll probably push up around 75 when we’re done.

Ed News: What kind of results have you seen?

Adamowski: Test scores have gone up significantly. In fact, we’re the most improved district in the state the last two years … every time our students can score above the state rate of growth, we’ve taken a step toward closing the achievement gap. Our metric suggested when we started out that it would take us 10 years to close the gap. Now we’re at about seven years, based upon the gains we’ve made in the last two years.

Ed News: What is the governance structure there – appointed school board, elected school board?
Adamowski: We have been blessed by the fact we have a hybrid board. Five of our nine members are appointed by the mayor, who also serves on the board. So we only have four elected.

If you look at the movement nationally toward appointed boards in urban areas, it is exactly the way to go. You’ve got to be able to sustain this long enough to produce results. All of the institutional interests will push back on these changes and elected boards are the most susceptible to that level of pushback.

I had an elected board when I was superintendent in Cincinnati and we were able to do some great things there. But I would say, with an elected board, it would have taken us twice as long in Cincinnati to get to where we are in Hartford in two and a half years.

Ed News: How do you continue reforms in this tough economy?
Adamowski: One of the things that has helped us the most is our system of weighted student funding or student-based funding. We fund the child as opposed to the school or the institution. That child then takes their funding to whatever school their parent chooses. So you can continue to start new schools as long as there are parents who want that for their child. And the system will adjust naturally to that.

(This economy) forces a couple of things. It forces you to concentrate on your core business of instruction. It forces you to fund students and families as opposed to institutions. But it also kind of sharpens the idea that a school, in order to sustain itself, has got to be successful and has got to have customers that want to attend it.

Thus far in our nation, nobody has had experience doing this in an economic downturn. All of our experience has been during times when budgets were increasing and, to some degree, a number of places have just kind of layered the reform on top of the existing system.

In this environment right now, you can’t do that. You have to change the existing system. As you start to do new things, there are just as many that you have to stop doing because your resources are so limited or they’re going down. What we have tried to do in Hartford, at the same time we were doing new things to support our reform, we’ve also cut deeply into the existing things we have done previously.

This environment accelerates the systemic nature of the reform, for those that have enough political will to actually do it.

Click here to link to a podcast of Adamowski’s complete talk in Denver on Friday.
Click here to see Adamowski’s presentation about reforms in Hartford.
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.