Archive for August, 2010

The other NOLA students

As we approach the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there’s been a great deal of press (CNN, Newsweek) reflecting on the changes that have occurred in New Orleans, i.e. the transformations and improvements that were implemented because of the total destruction of the city and much of its infrastructure.

Recent reports, Few Studies Track Post-Katrina School Changes (EdWeek), also question how we’ll be able to learn from the changes in the education system without much of the baseline data and control groups that are often needed for rigorous evaluation. This is a valid issue and hopefully research will continue and conclusions, on the most effective practices utilized, will be drawn without control groups, with overlapping strategies on the same population, and a lack of baseline data.

While we concentrate on the strategies implemented in and around New Orleans, I wonder what’s happened to all of the students who moved away from the city and never came back (or came back a year or two later). I was in NOLA last March and spoke with several students. I asked them about their experiences during Katrina and how much school they missed. One high school student (a 17-year-old sophomore) moved to two different states (Texas and Michigan) before returning to New Orleans and missed over six months of school. She was enrolled in schools in TX and MI, but rarely attended school and felt constantly behind.

If the New Orleans schools show any improvements (which many of them do), the efforts of the RSD, school staff, and non-profits (like New Schools for New Orleans & TNTP/TeachNOLA) should be applauded. New Orleans students were behind their peers before the storm, missed months of school, and were still able to recover. There’s still a lot of work to do, but that’s outstanding and we should acknowledge those accomplishments.

I was working in an elementary school in Delaware when Katrina hit. In December, our school was still enrolling students from the storm. Without school, health or vaccination records, without any official documentation (birth certificates, permanent addresses), and often without guardians (living with friends or relatives) students were held out of school even longer. This leads me to ask, how have school systems across the country changed because of Katrina? Do districts keep better back up (electronic) files of students? Are student files transferable between school districts and states? Do “receiving” school districts have policies in place to cope with students (and get them in the classroom faster) who are displaced in such an emergency?

It’s important to remember that Katrina didn’t just impact New Orleans and school systems across the country will benefit from the promising practices coming out of the region. Nationally, we must also adjust school and district infrastructures to more efficiently enroll students who are displaced in such a disaster, and to better support both the academic and emotional needs of those students.


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Getting kids to school safely is step #1

Since moving to Chicago, I’ve become accustomed to scanning the news every morning, and unfortunately, reading about shootings and stabbings throughout the Chicago area. Yes, there was violence in other cities that I’ve lived, but not even close to the same extent as Chicago. Recently, there have been numerous shooting at, or within a few blocks of, schools. Yesterday, a student was shot in the leg as he walked to school with friends (Teen shot near Gage Park High School). Some CPS students think that it’s odd to meet someone who hasn’t been shot before.

How can we expect students to perform and teachers go to work when they fear being shot walking to school? Altering the working conditions; aligning the program, assessments, and curriculum; ensuring that school leaders have autonomy to make decisions; and providing students the supports they need to learn, are all crucial pieces of turning around low-performing schools, but we must also address the crime and violence that surrounds these schools. “Fixing” a school without impacting the broader community will not produce the  results that we desire, and that we need. Communities must come together in support of turn arounds and not fight to keep the status quo.

While change may be uncertain, if we don’t make some major changes soon, the future for these students will be all too certain.

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Meeting the demand before building the supply

Sam Dillon’s recent New York Times story, Inexperienced Companies Chase U.S. School Funds, accurately portrays one of the major concerns of the turnaround/transformation school model. Billions of federal dollars are being allocated to states and districts (and schools) to hire external Lead Partners to assist in the turnaround/transformation process. But, who are these Lead Partners? Can they do this work?

The truth is that there aren’t many Lead Turnaround Partners out there. And, those with experience and a track record of successful school improvement are even fewer. While it’s difficult to build a supply of partners to take on this work (especially before the funding and policies exist to implement), the extreme demand that is now present in virtually every state and the lack of strong partners is becoming, and will continue to be, a major problem.

Potential solutions:

  • Create multiple venture funds to launch new high quality Lead Turnaround Partners (NewSchools recently announced a new fund will help do this, most likely, in the charter-world).
  • Build a training program for Lead Turnaround Partners (much like Building Excellent Schools, KIPP, or Urban Teacher Residency United).
  • Create an oversight body to certify strong organizations, that includes a rigorous review and evaluation process that provides states and districts with quality guidance and holds the partners accountable (i.e. an accreditation).

These are all long-term solutions, but the money is on its way, Lead Partners are popping up all over the place (from individual retired principals and traditional supplemental education service providers to the big publishing companies and professional associations) and they’re already being hired. So, what do we do now?

  • States (and large districts) should complete rigorous preferred provider searches. While it’s inevitable that politics will get in the way, applying Lead Turnaround Partners SHOULD NOT automatically be approved simply because they completed the RFP and it would cause potential conflict if they were not approved.
  • Districts and states need to closely monitor progress throughout the year, and if a Lead Turnaround Partner is not effective, the contract should not be renewed and the partner should be removed from the preferred provider list.
  • All Lead Turnaround Partners should have Memorandum of Agreements or Understanding (MOA or MOU) to clearly outline the goals, expected outcomes, autonomies, responsibilities, and repercussions for not achieving expected progress. These should be signed by the Lead Turnaround Partner, the district, and the state. See a recent AEI/Public Impact paper for more info.
  • States need to talk to each other to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the RFP release and review process, monitoring, and from their experiences with the various partners.
  • Lead Turnaround Partners need to talk to each other to discuss what works in specific districts/states and what doesn’t (there’s more than enough work out there, so the need for competition should decrease).

The bottom line is that “children first” should be at the forefront of every decision made relating to the creation of preferred provider lists, selection of partners, and the development of contracts. If we don’t hold the adults accountable for results, it’s hard to hold kids accountable for their results.

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The rural human capital crisis

Firing an entire teaching staff (who’ve produced dismal performance scores for years) is easier said than done. As we’ve recently seen in DC and Chicago, it’s difficult in the largest cities in the country, but how does such a strategy translate to rural areas? There are four major issues that rural schools implementing turnaround (or transformation) must cope with:

1) Schools and districts can be the largest employer in the community. While the students and the quality of education should be the primary reason for removing or recruiting new teachers, acknowledging the broader social impact is necessary. In rural areas, the schools are often the most stable source of employment (and highest paying jobs) in the town, and numerous family members may work together within the school. Asking a son to remove his mother/aunt/brother/wife from a job is an almost impossible task. Not only can bringing in “outsiders” increase tensions, but increasing the unemployment rate in the town also creates other social and economic issues.

2) Once staff members are released, are there people to replace them? This is an issue anywhere, but is compounded in rural areas by the low population density and the difficulty in enticing talent to move to the Mississippi Delta,  Appalachia West Virginia, Northern Maine, or The Ozarks. What incentives can a state offer to bring young talent back home? Could a larger percentage of education loans be forgiven for every year of teaching/service in specific communities? Could banks provide low interest loans or mortgages to recruited teachers? Could strong teachers be provided opportunities for networking and professional development to provide a support system and to help “grow their own?”

3) Do school, district and state leaders have the skill sets to implement a different type of hiring and evaluation process- based on competencies and results? What can School Management Organizations and school support organizations like AUSL, KIPP, or Mastery teach district and state staff about recruitment, hiring, evaluations, integrated professional development, and electronic/online infrastructures to do all of this? What learnings can alternative principal training programs (KIPP, NLNS, UVA) pass along?

4) Are alternative training programs (TFA, TNTP, NLNS) effective in rural environments? National alternative training programs are starting to place teachers and principals in more rural areas. Concentrating members in cohorts is often more effective than placing single teachers or principals in a school or district. Placing numerous new staff in one place creates a tipping point that forces the culture and climate to change more quickly. This can be done be bringing in a group of new teachers and administrators, and by keeping some strong teachers and staff that could be supportive of the changes.

Since the majority of education innovation and private (and public) funding is concentrated in the cities, effective strategies should be adapted and tried in rural areas as well. Underperforming rural schools receive much less national attention than the failing city schools, but those students deserve the same access to high quality education.

For more information: Efforts to Build Rural Leadership Gain Steam, EdWeek, August 5, 2010; Teach for America Mississippi Delta Region Overview; Teach for America: An Asset to the Delta, Delta Business Journal, August 6, 2009.

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i3 winners announced

It’s always better to be early than late, but USED surprised more than a few folks today by accidentally releasing the list of the 49 Investing in Innovation (i3) fund winners. The winners have the highest scores in each category (scale up, validation, development), but still have to secure their 20% funding match and pass through the final approvals. See EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog for ongoing coverage.

It’ll take awhile to sift through all the data/applications and scores, but there are quite a few surprises to say the least. Stay tuned to USED’s website for more information on the applicants, their scores, and how implementation will roll out (applicant data portal, i3 website).

A number of applicants proposed scaling up turnaround models and transitioning turnaround efforts into sustainable schools, and hopefully, some of these projects will be funded privately and the work will get done without i3 funding.

Congratulations to the 49 highest scorers, and now that all these great ideas are out there, let’s hope that innovation doesn’t stop with just the winners.

THE LISTS (courtesy of EdWeek):

The four scale-up winners are: Teach for America, Ohio State University, KIPP Foundation, and the Success for All Foundation.

The validation winners are: Children’s Literacy Initiative; The Curators of the University of Missouri – eMINTS National Center, Academic Affairs; George Mason University; ASSET (Achieving Student Success through Excellence in Teaching); Smithsonian Institution – National Science Resources Center, LASER; New Schools for New Orleans; The New Teacher Project; School District No. 1 of the City and County of Denver; Parents as Teachers National Center; President and Fellows of Harvard College Graduate School of Education; WestEd Teacher Professional Development Program; Johns Hopkins University – Center for Social Organization of Schools; Utah State University – Center for Persons with Disabilities; Council for Opportunity in Education; Niswonger Foundation.

The development winners are: Advancement Through Opportunity and Knowledge; Bellevue School District; AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation; Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools; American Federal of Teachers Educational Foundation; Bay State Reading Institute; Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee; Beaverton School District 48J; Board of Education of the City of New York Office of School of One; Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools Foundation; Plymouth Public Schools; Los Angeles Unified School District; The Studio in a School Association, Inc.; Take Stock in Children; Saint Vrain Valley School District Priority Schools; The Achievement Network; Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools; Search Institute; National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform; School Board of Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Iredell-Statesville-Schools; California Education Round Table Intersegmental Coordinating Committee; New York City Department of Education; and the Jefferson County Board of Education.

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Pulling a nonexistent rabbit out of a nonexistent hat

One thing has become remarkably clear over the last few years, school turnaround is not easy. It requires skill, knowledge, gut reactions, supporting policies and conditions, and lots of planning. This last piece is one of the most important, yet is the one that’s missing in most school, district, and state improvement plans right now. It’s the beginning of August, schools open at the end of the month, and in many places the crucial School Improvement Grant dollars have not made their way to schools.

It’s great that states are taking time to develop competitive processes to decide who gets the funding, and that USED is taking the time to review each state’s application, but the idea of a planning year seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

In the school improvement world (either turnaround, restart or new start) it’s widely recognized that a planning year, or at a minimum six months, is integral to a successful year 1. Principals need to be hired, staff evaluated and placed (or replaced as needed), the curriculum and pedagogy needs to be examined, facilities need updates, and a leadership team needs to develop goals, metrics, and the infrastructure to track progress.

Today, EdWeek ran an update of the Shawnee High School transformation. The principal has been working with a team of state mentors for months to develop the turnaround plan, hired new teachers last spring, and is trying to build a new staff culture this summer. Yet, he still feels that there’s too much to get done before the school year starts.

If a school principal that’s been working to develop the turnaround plan since last spring feels that he’s scrambling, how should the principals that haven’t seen any funding or support yet feel? Are the principals even aware of what’s being asked of them? Did they help create the School Improvement Grant application for the school? If year 1 becomes the unofficial planning year, what progress can be expected? What happens to those students who attend these still struggling schools for another year?

Yes, the federal funding is needed and students deserve better (and immediately). But, we also know how difficult this work is and it seems that we’re expecting a principal to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but we’re not providing the principal a rabbit or a hat.

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Why some states didn’t even start the race

With all the publicity surrounding Race to the Top, numerous stories have come out about which states applied, which states made it to the finalist round, and which states will win Round II, but little attention has been paid to the four states who didn’t even join the race in the first place. Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Vermont are the only states that did apply to Race to the Top (either Rounds I or II).

The RTTT applications were a tremendous amount of work for already overworked state education agencies, so in some ways, I’m surprised that so many states applied in the first place. Alaska and Texas both have a history of not wanting to participate in many national initiatives or associations, and I don’t know enough about North Dakota to guess why it didn’t participate. That leaves Vermont, my home state.

Like Texas, Vermont likes to be different, i.e. there’s still a group  of Vermonters who want to secede and have the state become its own republic. I received a phenomenal public education and while attending school I did not realize how progressive my schools were. I experienced some of the strategies that are now widespread and recommended (i.e. small schools, freshman academies, advisories, distributed leadership teams, hands-on and experiential learning, project-based learning, etc) before they were popular. Many Vermont schools could be vanguard examples for the rest of the country, but that doesn’t mean that other schools aren’t struggling, or that the top could be even better.

I understand that Vermont schools have different needs than much of the rest of the country, but does that mean that there isn’t still room for improvement? Do rural students have the same access to AP courses that Burlington and suburban students do? Are students in all schools reading at or above proficiency levels? Are schools allowed to operate with autonomy and accountability (i.e. charter schools or schools with charter-like conditions)? Are teachers promoted based on other measurements than seniority? Are all decisions made in the best interest of students?

A recent Burlington Free Press blog highlights some of the reasons VT did not participate in the Race, and includes some of the defensive arguments Deputy Education Commissioner Rae Ann Knopf. While some of the arguments are legitimate (such as the federal strings attached to portions of the funding and the different needs of a more rural state) I have a hard time believing that the state couldn’t find a way to work around those restrictions. Vermonters often use the big overbearing corrupt federal government argument as a way to defend the status quo (hence the recent controversy over the firing of a beloved principal of the H.O. Wheeler School in Burlington).

Sometimes, these arguments are completely justified, USED is far from perfect and sometimes federal plans with the best of intentions have adverse (and unintended) consequences. That said, applying for Race to the Top could have allowed more Vermont schools the opportunity to not only Race to the Top, but to surge past other states. Such a federal program could have been used to highlight and bring to scale some of Vermont’s strongest strategies and policies, and more importantly, could have offered the schools that are struggling (which do exist in the state) the chance to truly improve.

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Lately it feels like the school turnaround and improvement world is changing every day. In many ways, it is. There’s so much going on in the education reform world that it’s hard to keep track of all the publications, policies, news stories, and daily events. This blog will feature some of the news, policies, research publications, and opinions about the school improvement and turnaround word.

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