Warren Simmons: Apostle of Change

A conversation with the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

March 9, 2007

The path of education reform in the United States has taken many turns. Major events, such as the Sputnik launch and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s, have made education a front-burner issue from time to time. But as recently as the early '80s, there was no comprehensive national education policy before the landmark report "A Nation at Risk" helped set it in motion.

Today, most Americans believe we aren't doing enough to give students the math, science, and communication skills necessary to compete in the decades ahead. The question of exactly how to improve public education has enjoyed less of a consensus.

In the last few years, the No Child Left Behind act has polarized debate with the introduction of benchmarks and standards. But the larger issue may be the system set up to meet those standards. In the '90s in particular, education reform often targeted individual schools without a clear idea of how this reform can be replicated nationwide, or even in school districts.

For nearly thirty years, Warren Simmons has worked to understand, explicate, and advocate solutions for transforming education in America. As executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, at Brown University, Simmons pushes for what he calls smart education systems: a network of public and private schools tied to businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government entities to provide students with a holistic range of solutions for helping them succeed. Simmons spoke with recently by phone.

What are you working on now?

Since 2000, our mission has focused more sharply on improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged youth, particularly those who attend schools in urban communities. One target has been high school reform. There seem to be far more promising gains that have been made at the elementary school level than at the high school level, which previous reforms have overlooked.

How has the focus of school reform changed over the last ten to twenty years?

Much of the previous work in the '90s focused on school change, whether it was giving them more autonomy or strengthening them through private and nonprofit partnerships focused on teacher development. Schools were seen as the unit of change. But what we began to understand is, you also have to pay attention to the organizational structure that supports school districts and helps them take reforms to scale. We want to help communities rethink the way their districts have to be redesigned as much as the schools.

And meanwhile, the surrounding world changes all the time.

During the last ten years, our economy has gone through rapid change. We were talking about an information age, then we began to talk about a knowledge economy, and now, increasingly, we're talking about a creative economy. At the same time, new populations exist in cities, in urban school systems -- primarily African American and Latino students, and large numbers of immigrants.

The question is, do we have the people with the kinds of creative skills, the ability to work as teams, to continue to drive the economy around the world? In order to do that, there's lots of discussion about creativity, collaboration, communication, and interdisciplinary work joining the arts and sciences with mathematics.

How would you rate America's successes and failures on that front?

We've done a pretty good job over the last nine or ten years in helping the vast majority of students performing well below accountability-scale standards to get to a basic level. The challenge now is getting the vast majority of kids from basic to proficient levels of performance. This isn't just about doing more. The difference between basic and proficient is not simply quantitative and linear: It's a qualitative measure of performance.

So, how do you achieve it?

We have to not think of education as the sole province of schools, but, rather, begin to create what we at the institute call smart education systems. And I want to make it clear I didn't say smart school systems. We need to develop a range of cognitive abilities, social skills, and communication skills. There's considerable work that students have to do inside the schools, but they also have to have support in applying that knowledge to real-world problems.

Which means they have to do a considerable amount of engaged learning in their family and community settings. We have to think about how to build a smart education system that integrates the assets of municipal agencies, such as housing departments, parks and recreation departments, or cultural-affairs departments so that, particularly in disadvantaged communities, students and their families begin to get the supports they need to hone higher-level skills.

Critics accuse U.S. educational policy of being a series of fads, but you've argued it's been a more thoughtful evolution.

Any innovation without a system is easy to see as a fad. Because you don't have the supports needed to sustain or adapt it, innovations usually have a very short life span. During the latter part of the twentieth century, as we've thought about reform solely in schools, solely in terms of programs, we've left out the supports we need to take it to scale.

By 'taking it to scale' I mean you have to think about how to sustain it over time, how to build ownership of the work. I think in every school system, even in failing schools, you have these successful programs, but their success is in spite of the system, not because of it. Even today, in my judgment, there's still far too much talk of getting the system out of the way of innovation.

Instead, I think the important question is, what kind of system do we need to build so that innovation is part of the way it does business? In education, unfortunately, we tend to think of changes that are dichotomous as opposed to continuous. We say, Do we decentralize, or centralize? Instead, we should say, How do you build a system that marries decentralization and centralization in ways that accommodate innovation and high standards?

Are there success stories you can point to?

New York City's Harlem Children's Zone is a good example, and the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, in Pittsburgh, and the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative. These are places where community-based organizations, city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit organizations are looking at neighborhoods. They're then identifying ways to link the assets that exist in neighborhoods to citywide assets so students get support from learning inside and outside the school.

So, public-private partnerships are a key?

In our view, that's the most powerful way to begin to build the kind of learning opportunities to get to the definition of proficiency. And numerous districts are redefining themselves as organizations that make partnership a way of doing business, not an exception. In Philadelphia, for example, at least some of the schools might be operated by outside external providers or partners, through contracts or charters. Some of the partners are community-development corporations, such as Foundations, Inc., or the University of Pennsylvania.

They bring their assets to the operation and support of schools in a systematic way rather than an episodic way. You see that happening in New York City, in the network of schools that the Harlem Children's Zone is beginning to build. They're, in essence, part of the district. They have assets like a baby college, civic associations, youth-development programs, and arts programs, and they can be integrated into the schools, instead of just existing on a parallel basis.

What about fears that charter schools and other partnerships ultimately erode the public-education system?

As long as the networks of schools with outside providers are monitored for excellence and equity, it's still the public-education system. It's not the unraveling of public education -- it's the reinvention of it to take advantage of innovation that comes from partnerships with the nonprofit and for-profit worlds.

What about conforming outside partners to public standards?

Partnership is a catalyst for change on both sides. Charter schools that haven't been part of the public-education system have had the liberty of not taking on some of the toughest problems, such as English-language learners and children with disabilities. I think you're seeing not only greater innovations on the public school side through partnerships but also greater accountability from their partners, and therefore a greater concern for marrying excellence and equity.

This integration with other organizations also seems to denote a more holistic view of education and how it fits in children's lives.

For children and youth to make the journey from basic to proficient, you have to develop not only individuals but communities as well. Many of these newer efforts aren't solely focused on educational development. There's an understanding that we as a nation lose out when educated children are forced to abandon their communities to be successful and pursue their livelihoods, their passions.

How do you convince or help more communities create such systems?

It's less of a problem than it once was. Many local educational systems are now under mayoral control, which makes it easier for departments of education to work in partnership with housing and child-welfare departments, because they're part of a city system. You see that in Boston and New York. You had a recent move to that, in some regard, in Los Angeles. That makes having these cross-sector conversations somewhat easier, because the educational system is part of municipal government. It's no longer a separate, autonomous world.

But also, in the philanthropic world, where you once had education initiatives being done from after-school initiatives and community-development initiatives, there's a move afoot to be more integrated in their approaches to community development. They're asking themselves, How can we contribute to fostering the healthy employees and healthy communities that make for good employees?

What can be done about the overcrowding and other physical problems plaguing schools, especially with evidence in recent years that architectural factors, such as access to natural light, can measurably affect student performance?

That's been a major part of the high school reform efforts -- not just redesigning schools but also building new ones. Here in Providence, we've contracted with a firm to look at designs that would be consistent with the kinds of learning activities we imagine students engaged in, such as the use of technology, and connects them with learning activities in business, higher-education, and cultural-institution settings. We need to build technological interfaces across these kinds of settings and have schools thought of as organizations that have these external-partner facilities built into them.

We've also been involved in creating the Transatlantic School Innovation Alliance, in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, in New York City, and the United Kingdom's Department for Children, Schools and Families. We've started by partnering two schools -- New York's Marble Hill Academy, and the Bow School, in Tower Hamlets, London -- and then we're going to build a wider network. Both schools serve incredibly diverse populations, ethnically and racially as well as religiously, particularly in London. These student populations are also facing a teaching force that's still predominantly white.

What can be learned from England's approaches?

In London, Local Education Authorities are situated at the neighborhood level. I think one of the challenges we face here is that most of our institutions operate citywide, and it needs to get more specific than that. That's where the technology of collecting information and examining assets comes in. There's a basic infrastructure that people are beginning to build to do this cross-sector work.

Considering the Annenberg Institute's focus on urban education, how do you see the changing demographics of cities affecting the makeup of schools and student populations? It seems like the middle and upper classes are returning to central urban areas from the suburbs.

There was a long period when we devalued our urban areas and saw them as places to flee. Urban communities have always been catalysts for innovation, but in order to do that, they have to be places that support mixed-income and culturally diverse communities.

There's no place where this need for cross-sector thinking is more essential than in New Orleans, where the entire infrastructure has been destroyed. The challenge is to rebuild the city in a way that overcomes the old barriers posed by race and class. If we don't get cross-sector thinking happening in New Orleans, it's never going to happen anyplace else. Because there, you have to think about how you build the education, transportation, and housing systems simultaneously. You put up a school building, but you don't have buses and trains, and families can't get there.

You've been involved in education for almost thirty years. What kind of attitude do you have about the past and the future, and your place in things?

I'm humble, I'm hopeful, and I'm optimistic. Humility comes from the fact that I know what I know, and I know what I don't. I also have a son in his twenties, and I know there's a new generation that's experienced a world that I haven't. Those people will bring their new ideas and solutions to problems that my generation, quite frankly, hasn't taken advantage of.

So, you could say I've gotten past my own messiah complex -- that I was going to be the one to solve all the problems. What I now understand is that I've made some contributions, I've seen the need to change and grow, and my job is to catalyze change around another generation to come in with new energies. I see that beginning, and I'm excited.

In many ways, as I grow older, I'm learning that what we're trying to do is take old ideas and make them work more powerfully. The thinking behind this smart education system is really to enforce and encourage the unofficial networks that have always been there. I think we're now at a place where public systems are more nimble than they were twenty years ago, and thus more able to build these partnerships. Plus, we have new technologies that allow these partnerships to occur. I'm very hopeful that a new generation is going to take some of these old ideas and make them far richer.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Professional Learning

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.