POSTED ON APRIL 10, 2013:
TPS superintendent's big gambit
Tulsa Public Schools, like most operations with any history or scale, is a mix of archipelagos of excellence, programs (schools) that are howling mediocrities, and dismal spots that might become stellar with epic, even radical re-works. A host of schools in North Tulsa, in west Tulsa and elsewhere are in the last category.
What It Looks Like
Dr. Keith Ballard, who heads up Tulsa Public Schools, is like the rest of us, not perfect -- but he is a compelling change agent. As TPS helmsman he has been on an audacious, often tenacious and surprisingly resilient journey. His Project Schoolhouse, a contentious transformation, has sold or repositioned underused schools and reclaimed the costs of maintaining them for daily TPS use.
Project Schoolhouse focuses squarely on augmenting TPS resources to attend to turnarounds at low-performing schools, improving teachers everywhere and fixing other vexing problems -- while working with tightly constrained revenues. Ballard's consolidation push was long overdue: the timidity of a raft of past Tulsa school superintendents who lacked the courage to belly up to the bar is now evident. Their fecklessness held Tulsa kids back.
School reform in America features a small army of colorful characters. But one of the most influential, still emerging figures is economist/school reformer Dr. Roland Fryer of Harvard who heads up the three-year-old EdLabs/Harvard venture. TPS linked up with EdLabs in a recently announced three-year partnership to help eight struggling schools, including McLain High School and several of its feeder schools.
Fryer is one of the youngest people ever tenured at the Harvard economics department and an African-American one at that: He is a mathematical economist who has devoted his working life to using data intensive methods, brain-straining quantitative models and clinical trial-like pilot projects to attack America's most intractable challenges, including re-animating low-performing public schools.
Former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor is familiar with Fryer, having been a Harvard Fellow last year: "He has shown that the tutoring on math skills and additional time on task can make a tremendous difference helping kids graduate high school college- and career-ready," Taylor said.
She said Fryer pointed out that it's not just the tutoring itself; it's the mentoring element of being able to spend one-on-one time with a caring adult that helps the children improve not only academically but in other ways, like with better behavior at school. "Data show that mentoring can have an incredible impact. It can really turn a child around, which is why we started the Mentoring to the Max program when I was mayor," Taylor said.
Fryer comes to the rarefied atmosphere of mathematical economics and monster challenge work via an unlikely path. He had a horrible childhood and a checkered life as a teen: He got in trouble on a number of occasions and barely avoided a catastrophic involvement in a botched burglary in Florida. Fryer decided not to do "the outing" at the last possible moment; it would surely have derailed his now amazing trajectory -- maybe forever. Interestingly, Fryer spent some time in Tulsa as a young child. Writer Stephen Dubner, one half of the pair that includes Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame wrote about Fryer in a 2005 issue of the New York Times Sunday magazine:
"The final stop on our tour of Fryer's past was Tulsa, Okla. His mother, Rita, lives there with her second husband, Harold, in a black working-class neighborhood. During his first year of college, Fryer had a brief but intense fling with religiosity. It was then that he first tracked down his mother. He had been working on forgiveness, and he wanted to forgive his mother for abandoning him. But he couldn't get past the old hurt. ...On this day, however, Roland's mother explained that things weren't as simple as Roland had assumed. She didn't 'abandon' him, she said. In fact, when she and Roland Sr. split, she moved back to Tulsa with her son. Fryer looked confused; he never knew he had lived in Tulsa but then, Rita said, Roland Sr. came and, against her wishes, took the boy. 'We searched and searched, spent money and spent money, but we finally gave up.'"
There are five signature practices Fryer and team have garnered from their field efforts -- five items that heavily shaped the most effective schools in their work: frequent teacher feedback, data-driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time and a relentless focus on academic achievement. While these items may sound unremarkable, they depart widely from prevailing practices, according to New York's former school chief Joel Klein and others.
Ballard told me recently that his objective in getting McLain and it's feeder schools on a dramatically better trajectory is conceptually simple; he wanted to partner up with a team of people -- the best he could secure to get an awesome result for a difficult, long-standing challenge. He said he wanted to take this world-class team and match them up with existing talent at TPS and some of the passionate folks in parent/stakeholder community.
Unsurprisingly, given the not atypical character of school politics here, not everyone is happy with the EdLabs/Roland Fryer roll out. Darryl Bright is a long-standing and forceful critic of Tulsa Public Schools. Bright told me that EdLabs and Fryer have yet to "demonstrate" that they can get Tulsa's worst performing schools on a better trajectory. He says he just hasn't seen the data on Fryer/EdLabs, and he's not alone.
But Keith Ballard is throwing a "bomb" -- a bold gambit late in a game that has been underway for a long time. And 34-year-old Roland Fryer, the player he's picked to run the play, with lots of help from TPS people and hopefully some community folks, is one of the most intellectually powerful, resourceful and imaginative people working in the public policy arena in America today -- and his EdLabs venture has the talent, resources and passion to help Ballard do magic, and maybe they will.
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