In 1998, Dacia Toll founded Amistad Academy, a charter school for grades five through eight in a run-down part of New Haven, Connecticut, and she led the school as its first principal. Over the following decade, students at the school consistently scored above the statewide average on tests of reading and math achievement—in a city where the public schools as a whole substantially underperformed the statewide averages. In 2003, Toll and some colleagues founded Achievement First with the intention of opening more charter schools that could replicate the success of Amistad. Today, Achievement First runs 22 schools in four cities, educating 7,000 students. These schools consistently outperform their host districts. Her story epitomizes what education reform advocates hope to see from charter schools.

But the education sector in the U.S. is immense, accounting for more than $500 billion in annual spending and serving nearly 50 million children each year, and there is no simple answer as to how to make innovations, like those pioneered by Amistad and Achievement First, grow to the scale where they raise the performance of the system as a whole. Charter schools have become a flash point in the debate, with proponents seeing them as a vehicle to introduce much-needed innovation to sclerotic public school systems and critics seeing a diversion of attention and resources away from efforts to help all children. Researchers are attempting to sort out what effect charter schools have and which tactics make the largest difference in a school’s performance.

Dacia Toll visited Yale to participate in the Yale Philanthropy Conference, and we asked her about how to scale effective innovations in the education space. She points to the importance of understanding the differences between communities and between schools, rather than relying on pre-formed best practices, while maintaining the goal of finding innovative solutions in each school that help kids excel. 


Q: What school reforms have scaled well and what reforms haven't?

Dacia Toll: Well, you only have to look at the results to say we know a lot more, unfortunately, about what doesn’t work and what hasn’t scaled than we do yet about what does work. We have gaping and persistent achievement gaps and we have declining international competitiveness and they have devastating effects on kids and communities. What hasn’t worked to try to turn that tide over the last several decades is large-scale best practices reform—to say, “We know what works; therefore, let’s impose that on a system.” And that largely, waves and waves of new curricula have not worked. Largely, waves and waves of new teacher training practices have not worked.

What I think holds the most promise, but I think it is worth the humility to say is unproven at large scale, are more of the portfolio management approaches, which actually goes to the opposite end of the spectrum and says, “We are not imposing a single solution on a district, but rather—or a state—but rather, we are going to release constraints and allow talented, innovative people—teachers, parents, anybody who wants to join this important fight for what we need to do for kids—we’re going to allow them, through charter schools, through other kinds of innovative schools, to participate in a system of public schools where what we care most about is how well you’re doing for kids.”

I think that it’s the model that at its most pronounced is in New Orleans which I believe is the district that has seen the greatest performance gains in the country or if not, it’s in the top tier of districts that have been on the move. It’s a strategy that’s been embraced in the context of a lot of accountability in a state like Florida, which at the state level, has probably seen the greatest gains of any state in the country.

I think it’s not to say that these best practices aren’t important. They do matter. I, personally, believe there are better ways to teach reading. I believe there are better ways to train and develop and coach teachers, but that any best practice has to be combined with a certain talent and culture. So you have program, talent, and culture. And a command and control approach is not attractive to the talent that we need to attract—we need the best and brightest becoming teachers and principals for our kids—and it’s not conducive to the kind of culture—a performance culture and a culture of like, “We own what’s going on with these kids and we have the ability”…I think that’s tied to the ability to do things differently if it’s not working. So just this dynamism needs to come into the system and I believe that if you get the overall structure right, with clear outcomes and accountability and a structure of transparency, that then that will enable talented people to do what we need to do for kids.

Q: How much do different communities need different approaches?

Toll: I think there’s a tendency to think about our challenge in this country as an urban challenge. That is where I certainly spend all of my time and effort: thinking about how to close our gaping achievement gaps. But I think the honest truth, when you look at the data and results, is that our suburban students and our middle and upper class kids in our public schools are actually not doing as well as we all want them to do or believe they can do either. A huge part of why we’ve lost our global competitiveness is not just our urban communities, but really the quality of education that’s being provided in this country at large. I think it is worth saying that in defining the problem, we need to include everyone although, in a world of forced prioritization, I still think we should focus on our urban communities more.

In terms of whether the solution needs to be the same, I think I would say, “Yes.” The kind of focus on accountability, focus on entrepreneurship, focus on dynamic school models and what’s working for kids, that that is the same in an urban or a rural community as it is in an urban one. By nature of scale, it just may end up looking different but that the same kinds of solutions, where we try to get the absolute top teachers and school leaders, we try to get a real culture that’s focused on what’s best for kids, and we try to bring to bear all that we’ve learned about what works in public education, but we do it in the context of semiautonomous or networked schools that fundamentally can make the choices for what’s best for the kids they work with.

Q: What is the role of the business community in making education work better?

Toll: So, I think the business community, they have an incredibly vested interest in making sure that the future employees that our country are producing are the kind that they need and, of course, they have a vested interest in just the health of our communities and our country. It’s my impression that we have fewer real civic leaders amongst the business community than we used to. There certainly are some notable philanthropists who are speaking out and putting their money where their mouth is, but that my impression, especially at the local level, is that we don’t have the kind of powerful civic voice coming from the business community about what we…rallying the community around what we need to do differently to strengthen our schools, and more broadly, our communities.

So I think there’s a certain amount of, step up and come to the table and in loud, clear ways, including in ways that are sometimes politically uncomfortable, say what we need to do for our kids and command everyone’s attention and be willing to make the tough choices, because ed reform is not easy and is not always popular, but those need to become second-tier concerns to doing what we need to do for kids. I think there’s a powerful role of leadership and engagement in what is, fundamentally, a political and community sphere and then secondly, I would love to see business leaders engaged in a more hands-on way, working directly with schools in partnership to help them do what they need to do.