Archive for October, 2011

Don’t reset the clock

Despite all of the controversy and disdain surrounding No Child Left Behind, that version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) made some very important and positive changes to public policy. First, we actually started to look at how our students perform – and where disparities exist (i.e. the disaggregation of data). Second, we formally committed to the idea that every child should attend a semi-decent school. How either of these important features translated into action varied by state. Some states took the data and made significant changes to their state education systems to decrease the achievement gaps and the number of low-performing schools. In contrast, other states kept doing more of the same and ignored the federal mandates, found a way to work around making any substantial changes, or did just enough to meet the minimum requirements. (For more “Getting Nostalgic About The Law Formally Known as NCLB, see DFER’s blog.)

It is clear that many aspects of NCLB need (and have needed for some time) significant changes and refinement, but as discussion of the NCLB waivers and ESEA reauthorization permeates eduwonk discourse, I fear that the accountability clock is going to be reset. Schools which have failed to educate their students for years (based on any and all types of data analysis, including AYP, safe harbor, dropout rates, etc) are finally hitting the end of the current accountability system and are being forced to make substantial reforms.

I fear that if we completely overhaul the accountability system (formulas for calculating improvement, AMOs, AYP, etc) that schools who have failed their students for 10 years (or more) will start back at year 1 and will argue that they need the chance to improve on their own, without increasing levels of state or federal support (aka interference).

The revised ESEA and any approved NCLB waivers must include a conversion strategy for schools currently identified as in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring and where they fall on any new state or federally-defined accountability system. Without such measures, we will reset the accountability clock and additional generations of students will continue to attend schools which don’t educate them.

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New Report: SIG Promising Practices of Lead Turnaround Partners

New SIG Promising Practices Report – 

Lead Turnaround Partners: How the Emerging Marketplace of Lead Turnaround Partners is Changing School Improvement

The revised federal guidance for the School Improvement Grant program encourages the use of external partners to support and supplement the limited capacity of low-achieving schools and districts. In some schools, a type of external providers, called Lead Turnaround Partners (LTPs), are currently assisting with the implementation of the restart, turnaround, and transformation improvement models.

As LTP providers enter the field, some have relevant knowledge and experiences, but others are just beginning to take on more comprehensive reform efforts. Even the most seasoned education support organizations acknowledge that implementing systemic and sustainable dramatic school improvement, within the revised federal models, is a new type of work and there’s a great deal to learn.

This new report, authored by Corbett Education Consulting, with support from Public Impact, for the Center on Innovation & Improvement, is the first analysis of the substantial reforms Lead Turnaround Partners are implementing in persistently low-achieving schools, under the federal School Improvement Grant program.

This report highlights the promising practices of Lead Turnaround Partners, and how states and districts can help or inhibit their improvement efforts in persistently low-achieving schools. Areas of analysis include: the existing marketplace (both supply and demand); the varying definitions of the LTP role; the organizational structures of LTPs; roles and responsibilities; lessons learned; and most importantly, recommendations for states, districts and LTPs to establish stronger LTP partnerships in the future.

While we await more detailed scientific research that examines the effectiveness of LTP practices and partnerships, the LTP field will continue to grow. Until that level of research is complete, it is crucial that we learn from the early promising practices of LTPs, states, and districts.

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When enough is enough

The revised federal School Improvement Grant program shifts the state role from one of solely compliance to one of support AND compliance. As a result of this role change and the goal of long-term and sustained improvements, many states are beginning to focus on not only the low-performing schools, but also on the low-performing districts.

The district sets the tone for its schools and while some schools are able to make drastic improvements in spite of a dysfunctional district office, success is much more likely with district leaders who are fully on board. In my experience, district offices often push against any change to the status quo and the dysfunctional bureaucracy can be a barrier to any positive change for students.

Some district staff members may think these reforms will blow over, just like past reform efforts or past leadership changes, but they should understand that some things will not go back to “how things have always been done.” They can push against the changes, they can stand in the way of strong principals, strong SEA staff and the community, but they will be held accountable for their actions and inactions.

In order to turn around  districts there are two streams of thought: state takeovers and a newer supportive reform model.

While many state laws restrict the ability of the state education chief from “taking over” a school for any reason (underperforming or not), laws across the country are changing. I strongly support local control, but if a district continues to have under-performing schools, after millions of dollars and significant outside help have been provided, that district has demonstrated that it cannot effectively manage the school. These districts have had, and in some cases wasted, numerous chances to turn the schools and themselves around.

Successful “state takeovers” are rare, which is not too surprising as SEAs were not designed to run schools and districts. But, it’s likely that more state takeovers will occur as capacity at the SEA increases, and as districts encounter changing accountability requirements. The success of future takeovers is uncertain, but it is clear that some districts require this level of intervention.

In contrast, some states recognize both the lack of capacity at the district and the scarce supply of successful state takeovers. As a result, a few states are developing new ways to require district changes and to support the implementation of those changes. Similar to the creation of Lead Turnaround Partners working with schools in improvement, districts may also require external assistance to develop comprehensive district reforms, assist and monitor implementation, and to ensure compliance. While these external implementers may not have decision-making authority in the districts, such efforts should be closely watched across the country.

Some districts may require the former, but others may succeed with the latter. In the end, it may not be an either or, but low-performing districts may require both of these models – as well as additional models ones not yet created.

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