Breaking Down Funding Silos

Another presentation that I attended at the Closing Opportunity & Achievement Gaps conference was on breaking down funding silos and featured the work of the Federal Education Group. The two attorneys, Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, discussed many issues related to using federal funds more effectively and a couple of the most poignant pieces (and my commentary on those pieces) are below: 

  • “It’s not a funding problem, it’s a lack of understanding about the work.” (Sheara Krvaric). I see this all too often in my work with states and districts. There is a lot of money for school turnaround efforts, but SEAs and LEAs continue to plan for this work in a piecemeal way. SEAs and LEAs should begin with a set of goals, and then backwards map what needs to happen to reach those goals. Then, find the funds to implement that work. Until we have a better understanding of what the actual work is and how the funds can be used, we’ll continue to implement silo’d and ineffective practices – as opposed to comprehensive aligned systemic improvements.
  • One of the attorney’s also noted that states are so fearful of auditor findings that it limits their creativity. Instead, she recommends using funds in innovative ways (as long as the compliance pieces are met) and then risk a finding from the auditors. If a finding occurs, appeal it. As long as the state is not breaking compliance requirements, the appeal will likely be effective.
  • This is an area that is finally coming to the forefront of states and districts and several organizations are developing tools to assist states navigate the craziness that is federal funding.

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Innovative Approaches to Building Teacher & Leader Capacity

Last week, I attended the Closing Opportunity & Achievement Gaps conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Center on School Turnaround, Council of Chief of State School Officers, and the National Center for Systemic Improvement, and several of the presentations have stuck with me. One of those presentations was by Bryan Hassel of Public Impact and Scott Thompson from DC Public Schools. Bryan provided great information on the Opportunity Culture Initiative and presented innovative approaches to getting the most highly skilled teachers in front of the greatest number of students. Scott followed Bryan with some examples of policies and practices DCPS has implemented to improve teacher quality and retention. Below, I’ll highlight some of the pieces that I found most interesting:

  • DCPS launched a new program, called the Strategic School Operations program, to create new positions in schools that focus on the operational aspect of school relations. This allows the principals to focus on the instructional part of the school. These two leaders must work together to run the school, but the pilot program saw strong results. Scott reflected that before the position was created, school leaders spent almost 50% of their time on operations, and within 4 months, that percentage dropped to 20%. The positions were funded with existing budgets by reorganizing existing staff and FTE positions. The model was developed after looking at key components of successful charter school models. This is a model that should be closely watched and likely replicated in schools and districts across the country.
  • As a result of the SOS program, teacher satisfaction improved as schools are better managed (i.e. they don’t run out of paper, copy machines are fixed, busses run on time) and they receive more support (i.e. principals actually have the time to support and mentor teachers with job embedded professional development).
  • DCPS talks about transactional vs. transformational change – with an emphasis on transformational change.
  • DCPS has experimented with increasing base salaries and offering bonuses and has found that increasing base salaries is much more impactful than offering bonuses (even substantial ones). Scott Thompson stated, “People don’t make life decisions based on bonuses.”
  • Teacher candidate quality drops drastically as the hiring window moves along, e.g. the teachers hired in May are found to have much higher capacity and effectiveness than the teachers hired in August. As a result, schools and districts need to develop practices and policies that allow for the most in need schools to hire earlier (such as bonuses for teachers to alert the district of their non-renewal by an early deadline, preferential treatment in the candidate pool, etc).

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The value of PD – or lack thereof

A new report by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) entitled “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development” highlights the collective lack of knowledge regarding what helps teachers improve, despite a myth that we know what works and that teaching excellence is “just over the horizon.” TNTP’s exploration of teacher development activities across three large urban districts finds that school systems neglect to clearly define expectations for teacher performance and growth and do not provide development opportunities that conclusively improve teacher performance.

We know that teacher quality is the most deterministic factor of student success. So, how can school systems promote work cultures that value and support teacher improvement? When teachers, as this report highlights, “are told in innumerable ways that their level of performance is good enough,” what incentive do they have to master this complex job that requires mastery of a “daunting list of individual skills?” In order to drive teacher performance, we must focus on developing and supporting work cultures which value teachers’ individual needs, provide differentiated professional supports, and set an expectation that growth is the norm.

We spend millions of dollars on professional development (PD) each year, but what proof do we have that the PD results in improved capacity and better instructional effectiveness? We know teachers (and district leaders for that matter) need PD, but is the PD we provide working?

This report also highlights some interesting ideas for revamping both teacher training and how schools allocate teacher resources. They suggest that the best professional development for new teachers may well be gained on the job (i.e. job embedded PD)  – new teachers would begin by taking on small (but important!) responsibilities such as grading homework, managing extracurricular programming and communicating with parents. More effective teachers (those with both more experience and a track record of driving student achievement) would mentor these new educators and focus on lesson delivery. Through this system, everyone maximizes their current skill set to deliver the best educational opportunities for youth. Win, win?

Ultimately, this report shows that we have a long way to go in terms of best determining how to support, motivate, and drive the performance of millions of teachers across the country. Innovative ideas need to be tested and evaluated so that resource-constrained districts can begin to use valuable resources to support evidence-based systems for teacher development.

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New report: Examining how charter autonomies can be used to turnaround schools

Today, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Center on School Turnaround released a joint publication I authored, entitled: Chartering Turnaround: Leveraging Charter School Autonomy to Address Failure. This paper explores how charter schools and charter autonomies can be used to turnaround chronically low-performing of schools, via:

  • Traditional public school restart (TPS restart): Converting a low-performing traditional public school to public charter school status via the SIG restart model or via another accountability mechanism that requires a turnaround strategy;
  • Closure and replacement: Starting one or more new charters schools in locations with high concentrations of recently closed low-performing schools; and
  • Charter school restart (charter restart): Transferring management of an underperforming public charter school to new management and new board governance.

The paper discusses each of these options at a high-level, and then delves into case studies of three Charter Management Organizations using the TPS restart model to turnaround schools. The case studies are the core of the paper, and were my favorite part to research and write. Finding out about what’s working, what’s not working, and how practitioners in the field rise to the numerous barriers they face, while thinking out-of-the-box to problem solve is one of the best parts of my job. Speaking to the leaders of these three organizations was inspiring and revives my spirit in a sometimes daunting field.

Charter schools, and the charter autonomies they work under, provide us a unique opportunity to think outside of the traditional school building turnaround. It’s time we stop thinking about just preserving chronically under performing building and start thinking about how we can change turnaround opportunities for students. Charter schools, and their autonomies. are not a panacea for low-performing schools, but they do provide us with additional options that should be explored by policymakers and practitioners.

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Addressing the root cause of student behaviors

In school turnarounds, we often talk about the need to address climate and culture issues right away. In order to change the climate and culture in a school, students need to feel that their teachers believe they can learn, teachers need to believe that students CAN learn, behavioral expectations must be set clearly, and those expectations must be enforced consistently and with fidelity. But, what discipline looks like can vary. Too often in turnaround schools we see high out of and in school suspension rates. While it may be easier for the classroom teacher to instruct without a child acting out, that child loses valuable classroom time, and learns that the school (as a system) does not care if he/she is learning. This article (a great read for parents or educators), highlights psychologist Ross Greene’s work, explains why educators must get to the root cause of student behaviors, as opposed to reacting the action. We must find out what’s really going on with kids to prevent that action from occurring in the future. This requires a great deal of time, skill, and patience up front, but it can result in tremendous outcomes for the student. We must acknowledge that kids in turnaround schools (and all kids for that matter) have a lot going on and might not understand how to deal with their emotions and feelings in a productive manner. (Adults have the same issue, myself included!) Educators must step back from addressing the action, and dig deep to find out the root cause of an action. It could be as complicated as the child witnessed domestic violence last night or saw a neighbor being arrested, but it also may be as simple as the child is hungry. All it takes is a patient adult to ask a child what’s going on and what they can do to help. Our schools need to recognize student’s individual needs and then do what they can to mitigate the negative external forces on that child’s life.

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.


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Finding ways to address a human capital shortage

A recent EdWeek article highlights practices being implemented in Nevada and Colorado, that provides strong school leaders more than one school to manage. While such a practice must be carefully implemented (i.e. strong staff in both schools and supportive conditions from the district), the model can work – and has been effectively implemented for years in other countries. Read more about the practice here. What I found in England was that the entire system is designed to support strong educators and administrators. There was an amazing sense of shared responsibility and moral purpose. For this to work in the U.S., we’d need to reform some of the very systems that currently penalize the strong and hold up the weak(er) staff. Success requires a team effort.

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New state policy brief: Florida’s extended time for literacy

A new state policy brief from the Center on School Turnaround on Florida’s policy which mandates additional time for the purpose of literacy instruction in the state’s lowest-performing (in literacy) schools. Read more, here.

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