Cleveland Schools CEO Talks the Cleveland Plan, Charters, And The Future

Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon

Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon

At the annual State of the Schools address last fall, Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon called 2013-14 the "year of disruption that yielded tangible results.”

The majority of that speech centered around the progress of the district's plan to transform the city's schools, also known as the Cleveland Plan.

We checked in with Gordon earlier this week for a conversation that included a refresher on the cornerstones of the plan, the district's relationships with charter schools, and what type of work still needs to be done.

Q: In a sentence or two, how would you describe the goal of the Cleveland plan?

A: The goal of the Cleveland Plan is to triple the number of high performing seats for students, eliminate failing schools, and give families choices so that they can pick the educational experience that meets their child's needs.

Q: When it comes to the Cleveland Plan, how important are graduation rates? Are graduation rates the be-all, end-all measure to rate success?

A: When we describe high quality seats at the high school level, one of the best measures of high quality is graduation rate, schools that can graduate children. When we talk about failing schools at the high school level, one of the best indicators of passage or failure is graduation rates, schools that are failing to graduate children. If you’re going to demonstrate yourself as high quality, you better be able to graduate kids and graduate them well.

It’s not the be-all, end-all. Parents are also interested in what happens after graduation, are the students going into technical certificates, are they remediation-free for college. So it is an important and big barometer in that its nationally standard now, but you gotta look beyond that into years 13-16, and make sure that graduation certificate actually allowed for a healthy life.

Q: One cornerstone of the Cleveland Plan is the portfolio choice model of schools, which includes many charter school options. How would you describe the district’s close relationship with charters? For a lot of public districts, it can be a contentious one.

A: Ohio’s really unique in that we have some of the least regulated charter schools in the country, and so that has caused a very aggressively competitive relationship in Ohio. That’s not actually true in the entire country, but it was true and is true in Ohio.

Our bet was that we had to stop arguing about who owns children and start arguing about whether children were getting a great education or not.

We intentionally tried to shift from a competitive to a collaborative experience, where we looked for partners who were doing good work and would work with us to serve children better. Fortunately, Ohio’s starting to see some charter reform movement that I think will mirror the national experiences, which are more collaborative in nature, which are about serving children well, regardless of how those children choose to be served.

Q: One of the big arguments that you hear from public schools is that they feel like they're losing money when it comes to charter schools.  What’s Cleveland standpoint on that?

A: Well, we are losing money, because that money follows the child to the charter school. we are also losing kids. Any declining enrollment district, which is what happens when you lose kids to charters, faces the very real problems of too much infrastructure, and built-in costs that are hard to adjust to, and so part of it is building the relationship where we are able to stabilize enrollment, figure out how to share services, and how not to create a new set of infrastructure when we have the existing infrastructure.

It’s easy to get caught into the “where does the money go,” but we can’t keep talking about who owns children. We have to talk about whether that child is getting a great education or not, and so we have taken a stance to being agnostic to form and strict to quality.

Q: Are you concerned about that trend over time?

A: I actually think that it's working exactly as we wished. Our declining enrollment has almost stopped, we actually could start to grow again, and we have now, I think, 17 or 18 schools that are sponsored or partnered with us that are doing good things for kids too, so I think the bet has started to pay off, and that our declining enrollment problem, which was up to hundreds of kids a year, thousands of kids a year, has absolutely ceased in this school year, and so we’re really seeing a flattening, and we think we can regrow.

Q: When it comes to the Cleveland Plan, what kind of progress still needs to be made?

A: We’re going through a lot of change, and so change is an iterative process, so you have to take everything you’ve done and review it and refine it every single year. I don’t think I would point to any place where we’ve absolutely succeeded, nor do I think we've absolutely failed anywhere.

For example, in the graduation rate, it’s up 12.2 percent, that’s big movement, but it’s only 64.3 percent. That’s a big gap from where it needs to be. We need to continue to move more kids successfully through their high school experience. That means we have to continue to expand choices that are working for kids and extinguish choices that are not working for kids.

That means we have to think about the K-8 experience, and making sure kids come to high school more ready, and we have to do it in a context of rapidly changing expectations in Ohio and in the nation.

2013-14 was the year of disruption. It was like pulling the bandage off. Everything changed in the entire system. This year, then, is the year of revision, connecting these pieces, making it cohesive, so if you think about writing a great paper, you do this draft, and it’s messy, and it’s got all the stuff you want to put together, and then you have to go back and revise it and make it cohesive.

This is our year of cohesion, how do all of those disrupted pieces work in tandem to allow for school improvement. And then as we head into next year, it’s a year of refinement, where we really make sure that now that people understand how this stuff fits, they know how to work it to the maximum.

The question and answer session above has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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