School leaders can close gaps in student achievement by reaching out to other schools and forming networks, enlisting the help of parents and other stakeholders, making professional development for teachers a higher priority, and using data to make better decisions about instruction.

These are some of the lessons learned from the Annenberg Challenge, the largest and most ambitious effort yet by a private foundation to reform public education. Its results should prove illuminating as school leaders embark upon the education reforms required by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The Annenberg Challenge was launched at the White House in 1993, when former U.S. ambassador Walter Annenberg announced he would give $500 million to improve the nation’s public schools. The 85-year-old philanthropist, who made his fortune in publishing and communications, challenged others to match his gift.

Eight years and $1.1 billion later, the Annenberg Challenge is winding down. The institute that runs the project released a report on June 12 summarizing its findings.

“The Challenge did not work miracles, but it frequently beat the odds and helped public schools do better,” said Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “It was time and money well spent.”

The 18 Annenberg Challenge projects benefited an estimated 1.5 million students in 2,400 schools across 35 states, according to the report. The program’s main goal was to improve public education in several of the nation’s largest cities, but it also strove to expand arts education and improve rural schools.

The 18 sites each took different approaches to school reform, but an underlying principle of the grants was that teachers needed to measure students’ abilities on a regular basis and use the results to tailor their instruction accordingly.

Toward that end, teachers and administrators in many participating schools were taught to make data-driven decisions.

“You have to create a culture of inquiry that is always flowing from the system, where people are eager to learn and to ask, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are the kids learning? Which ones? Who isn’t?’ To do that, you need good data,” said Maria Casillas, executive director of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project.

Making sense of test data is no easy task for educators, the report notes. To help, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform distributed a document called the “Framework for Accountability,” which shows how to make students’ work the center of the accountability process.

The investments appear to be paying off. Stanford University researchers found that teachers in 75 percent of the participating San Francisco Bay area schools were breaking down achievement data to examine racial and ethnic disparities.

Based on these data, one Bay area school retooled its curriculum and support structures to better serve African-American and Latino students, the report says.

A centerpiece of NCLB and its own accompanying school reforms, data-driven decision making soon will be required of all school districts. Under the new law, districts must report annually on student performance by race, gender, income, and other characteristics starting next year.

Schools will have to show that students are making “adequate yearly progress” in reading and math; if a school falls short, parents will be able to ask that their children be transferred to a better performing school or receive supplemental services such as tutoring or virtual schooling.

While recognizing that schools cannot improve without this kind of accountability, the Annenberg Challenge report sounds this note of caution: “Accountability is a two-way street. The political leaders who are demanding rightfully that our students, teachers, and schools meet higher standards must give them the resources to get the job done.” Those who set the policy and allocate the resources also must be held accountable, the report says.

Here are other lessons cited in the report:

• Schools are too isolated. By reaching out to other schools and forming networks for mutual support and criticism, educators can solve problems more easily.

• Schools need many allies to achieve results. Parents, businesses, and other stakeholders can help—but they must be recruited.

• Sustained professional development is the No. 1 key to better schools.

Related links:
Annenberg Foundation
http://www.annenbergfoundation.org

“The Annenberg Challenge: Lessons and Reflections on Public School Reform”
http://www.lessonsandreflections.org

Annenberg Institute for School Reform
http://www.annenberginstitute.org