What to do with ‘persistently underperforming’ schools?

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).


13 responses to “What to do with ‘persistently underperforming’ schools?

  1. “I find that Christian Science Monitor article posted by Jessie decidedly “unchristian” – that, and factually incorrect on a multitude of levels (like 4th and 5th generation Latino’s in California still speaking only Spanish – seriously, go out and find one!)”

    It’s drivel. Hispanics are dumping their language faster than other historic immigrant groups to this country.

    See this old, but still pertinent, article by Geoff Nunberg:

    In fact, the RAND corporation found that >90% 1st gen Hispanic immigrants to the US had native proficiency in English, and 50% of 2nd gen Hispanic immigrants still spoke Spanish.

  2. Shawn (Educator)

    What I fail to see in many of these blogs is any talk of white privilege and recognition that the public school system was set up for middle class white children from its inception. I wonder how many parents of the dominant culture are willing to recognize the privilege their “whiteness” brings with them as they go through life and enter our public schools? I here a lot of deficit model comments from parents and from teachers alike (I was one of them myself). What “failing” schools need (I’ll remind you that our African American children are failing in all SFUSD schools, not just”underperforming schools”) are classrooms, lunch rooms, and playgrounds that are culturally responsive. That value the languages and the culture that comes with it (and not just popular culture–i.e. learning styles, communication styles). White culture needs to look hard at itself and think about how we place our cultural beliefs on people of color and expect them to mold to it.
    And where is data that charter schools are performing any better? If you want change, support public schools and the students and teachers in them (don’t expect quick change for-this is also a privileged point of view and don’t abandon because the school doesn’t fit your every desire). Reconstitution does not work and just replaces one warm body with another (I know this first hand). Racism 2.o needs to be addressed. For more on this refer to Tim Wise’s literature and blog Timwise.org.

  3. I find that Christian Science Monitor article posted by Jessie decidedly “unchristian” – that, and factually incorrect on a multitude of levels (like 4th and 5th generation Latino’s in California still speaking only Spanish – seriously, go out and find one!)

    Read and know our history – at the turn of last century people were claiming the end of America because of immigration of Jews, Italians, Irish (i.e. “those Catholics”) and spouting all the same fears and accusations. And the world (and the U.S.) didn’t come to an end and better times were still to be had in the future.

    As noted in the book “Bowling Alone” we are experiencing a typical pattern of blaming those who come most recently – especially as our economic system is changing (from industrial to technology/information), the world marketplace is becoming more competitive, and we are facing economic recession.

  4. @BernalMom: I think we have schools with 74% disadvantaged students because we have neighborhoods with 74% disadvantaged students. The district’s efforts at school choice tried to address that and failed. I hope that the neighborhood(ish) school assignments will at least provide some certainty and stability so that both parents and the district can get stuck in for the long grind that @Bernal Dad references. And he’s absolutely right about the pernicious impact of unstable funding and underfunding of education.

  5. rachel – we are in agreement. I’m a big believer in the home being the most fostering of a good, passionate education.

    Why is any school in San Francisco even allowed a 74% student body of disadvantaged students?

    It definitely feels like these schools and students lost the most with the lottery.

  6. Jessie – Wow. I completely disagree with the generalization you are making about “Hispanic culture” and “these people.” I find it sad that you have spent so much of your life in our fair city and our schools and still managed to come out with such an uninformed perspective.

  7. Rachel,

    I think you are wrong that the student body is not to blame. They are more to blame than the teachers or SFUSD. I think that if more cultures valued learning and growing and achieving, things would be different.

    Malcolm X and El Dorado have student bodies in which families don’t value education. So you have schools that are failing. It is not because they are poor. If you want a clear example of how that is not true then look at Jean Parker or any of the schools where there is a large Asian population. Really why do we blame the teachers or SFUSD? Why can’t we lay blame directly at the foot of parents and the kids that don’t want to learn.

    Some say that every kid wants to learn. I don’t agree. I think that kids that come from a back ground where education is not valued, don’t care about learning. So they disrupt class rooms or don’t show up.

    Here is an article that talks about the hispanic culture and how education is not sought but devalued.


    I agree with some of the article’s assertions. Why? I’ve gone to school with some of these people. I have seen how they don’t care and are disruptive. As someone that grew up in the city and that went through SFUSD from K-12, I know of what I speak.

  8. “His suggestion for this whole mess was to take the teachers from Rooftop and put them into one of these low performing schools. ”

    At the risk of contradicting Bernal Mom, Rooftop, of the alternative schools, does a weaker job of educating low-SES kids than e.g. Lawton or Lillienthal, and much weaker than Moscone, McKinley or Taylor.

    I feel like we’re running out of ideas.

    School choice – works a bit, but not that much.
    Charters – turns out being free of the “red tape” of the districts doesn’t actually result in better test scores. Slightly worse, in fact
    Privates – same as charters, when you adjust for socioeconomics.

    On the one hand, it’s heartening that it turns out public schools weren’t actually screwed up compared to the competition. On the other hand, it means there’s no effective quick fixes or policy gimmicks. Just a long slow grind to incrementally raise teacher performance and improve curricula. Evolution, not revolution.

    Maybe STABLE EDUCATION FUNDING so schools aren’t going into a funding crunch every time the economy takes a dip would be an idea. Given the Feds can run a deficit, it seems to me that a loan or grant facility to school districts during a downturn in revenues would work.

    All the long-term planning on professional development, teacher recruitment, program development goes into the round filing cabinet when you have to make the kind of cuts we have to make this year.

    If frickin’ Goldman Sachs can go to the Federal Reserve deposit window and get a low-rate loan when it’s short of capital, then why can’t SFUSD?

  9. Oh, BernalMom — I was with you until you started blaming the students. The students are the people I blame least.
    I’m convinced it’s true that you would find little variation in the teaching skills if you conducted a teacher effectiveness study at Rooftop and Paul Revere, to use your example. (Though it would depend on how you measured teacher effectiveness — right now, many are proposing to use test scores, which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole experiment ;-). Anyway, I don’t think most teachers are the problem at our lowest-performing schools; nor do I think that most principals deserve the blame. But if by saying that students are “the systemic problem that needs to be addressed” you mean that poverty, economic instability and other social ills have a negative effect on academic achievement, I’ll give you that.

  10. I was talking with a cab driver last week about the schools – he went to Paul Revere and then to Horace Mann (both on the list.) His suggestion for this whole mess was to take the teachers from Rooftop and put them into one of these low performing schools. Then, let’s see if those teachers could get the same results. If not, well, there is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed, and one that a lot of people are not accepting – the students.

  11. Westcoastgal

    What about reorganizing a site like Carver to include Prek and CDC through 5th grade with an “Administrative Team” that includes but is not limited to Emily. She’s started some very effective programs there like collateral counselig for families and children around trauma.
    Why can’t it be a “yes and” instead of an “either or” ?

    Emily has the relationships with those families and they trust her. If you remove her… you may as well kiss that community momentum good bye. But if you include her in a reorganization/leadership team that offers MORE support and brings the babies in at age 3 with parent education/college credit, you could be looking at a Gregory Canada effect.

  12. really what needs to happen in these schools is to have more teachers and paras in the classroom and free tutoring so that the kids can get caught up. Obviously schools like carver have a much bigger function in the community than simply a school. It’s a liferaft of stability the community is clinging to and firing people isn’t the solution.

  13. If ever there were a more clear example of the danger of mixing politics and education policy, I think you’d have to go to Texas to find it! I don’t envy the board’s task here, especially since it doesn’t even have the option of opting out of the state’s Race to the Top effort. Whatever funds might be forthcoming in return for these changes hardly seem worth the bother.

    I guess we can keep hoping that evidence-based reform will gain a toehold somewhere…