Archive for April, 2011

Delaware leaders holding district accountable

Delaware’s largest school district, Christina, has backtracked on its commitment to implement drastic reforms in two persistently low-performing schools (i.e. proficiency rates under 50%). As a result, the Delaware Department of Education is holding the district accountable for its actions and is withholding more than $11 million dollars of he Race to the Top fund. Kudos to state education leaders for prioritizing students.

The Christina School Board, and union representatives, previously agreed to the staffing changes in these two schools, via an MOU, as part of their inclusion in The Partnership Zone (essentially a state carve-out zone for turnaround). The self-created improvement plans for both schools, based on the federal transformation model, require all teachers to re-interview for positions at the school. The district agreed that the teachers who are not rehired would be placed at another school within the district, and that they would retain employment, benefits, and seniority… A guarantee not common is most professions.

Teachers claim that the interview and hiring process was confusing, which may be a partially valid point. It is the district’s responsibility to ensure a fair, just, and overly transparent process. Without extra precautions, the interview and rehiring process can become a public and human relations nightmare. District leadership must work diligently to keep the focus on the students, and that includes not giving the public, the union, or anyone the opportunity to attack the school improvement model or the implementation process. Any attacks or barriers limit the ability and timeliness of the model’s implementation.

It is also important that the union, if they are supportive of the reform process (which they had been), help their members understand the process, the consequences of not interviewing, or of not being rehired, etc. The union is doing a disservice to all teachers who would benefit from the Race to the Top funds by not actively participating in process and helping clarify concerns of the members. The union commented on and approved the transition plan, but where were they during the actual process? Instead of hurting the kids (and other teachers in the district), the affected teachers should be frustrated with the organization that was supposed to represent their best interests.

It is likely that most of the teachers not rehired need to leave the two schools in question for a variety of reasons.  They may lack the skills required for positions available, the are not quality teachers, or because they are not committed to the reforms and the changes that will be implemented. The fact that the district committed to not firing any of these teachers is a generous concession.

It is unclear if the School Improvement Grant funds, which I assume are being used to fund the Partnership Zone improvements, have also been stopped. If the school/district is unable to implement the federally designed model with fidelity, those funds should be held as well. A public outcry must force the adults in the system (in this case the School Board) to fight for the students and to ensure that they receive the funds, supports, and changes that are needed to drastically improve these schools.

An interesting aside to this story is that the current Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery was the Superintendent of this district before her move to the DDOE. Could there be other politics, between the School Board and the DDOE/Secretary Lowery, in play here?

Read more: EdWeek’s District Dossier Blog, Delaware’s News Journal, DDOE press release.

Disclosures: I ran a youth mentoring program at Christina’s Brader Elementary School in 2005 and helped design the Partnership Zone model while in Mass Insight Education’s School Turnaround Group from 2007-2010.

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Improvement article roundup

  • Teacher-Leader Corps Helps Turn Around Schools. Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, April 18, 2011. A great and promising organization expanding rapidly across the country and run by some of my former Mass Insight colleagues and consultants.

“… A third [of] the district [Boston Public Schools], are participating in a novel turnaround venture here that attracts and seeks to retain highly effective teachers through a bundle of incentives, including leadership opportunities, a structure for peer learning, and increased pay.

Now wrapping up its first year, the initiative is providing insights into the role of teachers in overhauling the culture of a low-performing school—as well as giving way to new questions about the nature of teacher leadership and how to develop it.

[The goal of Teach Plus] is to help create leadership opportunities for teachers in the “second stage” of their careers that don’t require them to leave the classroom for administration or higher education.

The T3 initiative grew out of the Teaching Policy Fellows, a program run by Teach Plus that selectively recruits teachers and gives them opportunities to study education policy and craft their own proposals for improving schools.”

  • Alexander Russo’s new book “Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School” hits the shelves (or the Amazon.com order form) today and receives a strong review from Jay Matthews in the Washington Post.

“Ambitious education reforms on the table in Springfield could change how Illinois schoolteachers earn tenure and hold onto their jobs amid tough financial times, with seniority for the first time mattering less than performance. The proposed changes would upend the way teachers long have been treated when financially strapped districts cut staff.

The proposals come as hot-button issues such as collective bargaining — including everything from how teachers can be fired to how they pay dues — have roiled nearby states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, sparking protests and legal challenges.

In Illinois, by contrast, negotiations unfolded quietly behind closed doors, bringing to the table groups sometimes at odds.

‘This is proof education employee unions can and should be leaders in reform,’ read a joint statement by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Education Association and the Chicago Teachers Union, all of which participated in the dealmaking.”

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New CPS leadership team announced

Today, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel announced the new leadership team at CPS. The team will be led by Jean-Claude Brizard, currently the Superintendent for the Rochester City School District in New York. The team includes several current CPS employees, as well as new leaders. Some of the notable hires, who are most likely to strongly influence the school improvement process, include:

Noemi Donoso as the Chief Education Officer. Noemi is currently the Director of Denver’s Office of School Reform and Innovation. Her work and experience in Denver will be of great help as the team figures out how to alter improvement strategies for the large number of low-performing schools in the city.

Tim Cawley as the Chief Operating Officer. Tim is currently the Managing Director of Finance and Administrator at AUSL. His experiences expanding AUSL and in the business world is desperately needed to help get the CPS administration back on track.

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The fight for/against consolidations

Consolidating schools and/or districts is a highly controversial strategy, but it should be considered in a variety of circumstances. The Board of the Chicago Public Schools is currently debating the pros & cons of consolidating a handful of schools and the community is gearing up for a fight. Once again, this comes down to the “does this decision positively impact the adults or the kids?” conundrum.  (Battles loom over proposed consolidations of Chicago schools, Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2011)

Circumstances that warrant possible consolidation:

Cost-efficiency — Many states have hundreds of small school districts; in some cases, individual schools act as an entire school district. While this may ensure that the local community has a say (i.e. control) of the school, it also means that the community must fund a superintendent’s salary, other district staff, and the students might not have access to the highest quality educational programs and opportunities. For example, it’s difficult to have a full-time curriculum director or literacy specialists in such a small district, and larger districts can use economies of scale to negotiate better prices on purchased products or services. Some independent charter schools are even joining forces, through regional consortiums, to benefit from these type of advantages.

While small districts may produce more jobs for teachers and district staffers, and it may provide parents and the community with the feeling of control, it wastes money that could be better spent on providing higher quality instruction and opportunity to the students.

Attendance shifts — Over time, the population of a community changes and many schools that were built in specific places no longer have enough students to fill all the open seats. In effect, it does not make financial sense to have two or more half-full elementary schools within the same area. While I agree that transporting students across the city isn’t always the best solution, if there are partially full schools within a similar area, consolidation should be considered.

Low-performance — In Chicago’s case, the district is trying to not only save money, but improve the quality of education for more students. Some schools continually struggle with low-performance and are slated for closure within a few years (schools are often allowed to try to improve for numerous years before they are shut-down or phased-out), so the district can adjust attendance boundaries and limit placing new students at that school. In a sense, this consolidates the students before the school. If there are two half-full elementary schools in a close proximity, one high-performing and one low-performing, what are the valid arguments for not consolidating the students into the higher-performing school?

Cautions — Combining schools and/or districts requires a great deal of political and cultural sensitivity. The communities must be informed about the changes, the impact on their children and the neighborhood, and how they will be able to participate in the new school/district. When combining schools, possible gang affiliations or rivalries should also be taken into account. As was evident in Green Dot’s Locke High School transformation gang affiliations caused a significant number of problems while trying to group students into the new “small schools.” (See Alexander Russo’s new book on the Locke transformation for more detail on this issue.)

Consolidating schools or districts is not a magic bullet solution, but it should be considered as an aspect of both school improvement and cost-saving measures. Community members and staff will continue to fight for their schools for a variety of reason (some valid and others not), but the decision-makers need to make the tough decisions and determine what’s best for the students and not the adults.

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