Tomorrow night, the Board will hold a Committee of the Whole (meaning, essentially, a policy discussion with no action items) to discuss the Superintendent’s plans for our 10 schools labeled “persistently underperforming” by the state.
This list was created as part of the state’s efforts to qualify for Race to the Top. It designates five percent of the state’s schools as failing, and prescribes one of four turnaround models for districts to take. There’s no choice in the matter, though it’s unclear under state law when these actions would have to be taken. If, however, a district wants to apply for Federal funds to help implement one of the turnaround models, it must submit a plan in the next few weeks — and begin the work within six months.
I am not crazy about any of the turnaround models. They assume that school leaders are so stupid that d’oh! We never thought of replacing principals! We never thought of reconstitution (which we tried in this district and which failed, miserably)! Charter schools! Wow! (Even though charter schools have as mixed a record as traditional public schools — no miracles here.) School closure! (How does closing a school affect the achievement of its former students, exactly?) Disliking the so-called “turnaround” models doesn’t mean endorsing the status quo; none of these models have any serious research behind them to prove their efficacy – the record is mixed at best. These prescriptions are essentially an effort by the Department of Education (and our state Legislature, which went even beyond the Federal requirements to qualify for Race to the Top) to throw a bunch of ideas at the wall and see what sticks, damn the unintended consequences.
Worse, because we have more than nine schools on the list, the Federal “rule of 10” kicks in: it means you can’t use one strategy on more than 50 percent of your schools. So, were we to decide that replacing the principal is the least damaging strategy for our schools, we could only use that strategy on up to five schools. For the other five, we’d be required to take more drastic action even though in our local judgement those actions might not be necessary or even desirable.
As an article in this week’s Education Week points out:
By tightly prescribing what districts must do to intervene in those schools, the Education Department hopes to avoid what federal officials see as the shortcomings of restructuring for the NCLB law. Under the 8-year-old law, most districts have opted for lighter-touch interventions that have produced few gains. But many state and district officials say the new, more stringent requirements are too rigid or even impossible to live up to.
“Rigidity never works when you are going to do a turnaround,” said Sheldon Berman, the superintendent of the 98,000-student Jefferson County school system in Kentucky, which includes Louisville. “There are individual circumstances that impact individual schools.”
Even policy experts who believe the Education Department’s prescriptive approach to school interventions is superior to the NCLB’s less restrictive approach have concerns. They worry about the capacity of districts to find new principals and teachers, especially when most districts will have less than six months to plan and execute a turnaround strategy.
“For the districts that have to make staffing changes, it’s going to be very difficult to pull this off and to pull it off well by the start of next school year,” said Rob Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington think tank. “By pushing this first group of schools to have everything in place by September 1, [the department] is already dramatically impacting the probability of success.”
So what are our alternatives? Are they all negative? That’s what the Board will discuss tomorrow night. We already have school communities rallying around their principals (Carver Elementary and Willie Brown community members came to last week’s Board meeting to express their concern about the effect any one of the proposed turnaround models would have on their schools — the Superintendent assured them that closure was not on the table, but that’s cold comfort when your other choice is to lose your principal and/or half your teaching staff, or see your school “restarted” as a charter — not all that different from closure).