Archive for April, 2012

Analysis of GAO’s SIG report (part 2)

To continue the analysis of a recent GAO report…. See Part 1 here.

Dance of the lemons

Schools implementing the federal turnaround model must replace 50% of teachers, and the transformation model requires replacement of the principal (with a few exceptions), yet how those staff members are removed and replaced is not always done in the best interest of students.

While some teachers or principals in a low-performing school may simply need a new environment, many need significant professional development to improve their instructional and leadership abilities, and a few may need to change careers. The GAO report cites how these requirements are implemented all too frequently, “However, the district officials said they relocated the released teachers to the other SIG schools in their district because those schools had almost all of the vacancies. Similarly, in two states we visited, district officials moved a school’s previous principal into another leadership position on site so that the person could continue to work in the school even after a new principal was assigned.” (Pages 9-10)

Some of these moved teachers may succeed in simply a new environment, but reassigning low-performing teachers, who’ve been teaching in a chronically low-performing school, to another chronically low-performing school will not likely produce the desired student achievement results. Similarly, keeping a low-performing principal in a leadership position undermines the authority of a new principal coming into the building who is trying to make changes.

Districts must put their best teachers and best leaders in their (traditionally) “worst” schools. District leaders must develop the political will and the commitment to put student needs ahead of adults (i.e. acting as an employment agency) and school boards and state education agencies must back up these decisions.

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Analysis of GAO’s SIG report (part 1)

Last week, the General Accountability Office released a new review of the federal School Improvement Grant program, and the report includes several important findings. Much of the report is consistent with the strengths and weaknesses of the SIG program that I see and hear in the field, and some of the recommendations align with my own for states and districts. A few statements in the report indicate major issues in our education system that represent larger problems and must also be addressed.

The report brings up several issues that should be discussed and should be used to inform changes at the federal, state and district levels. One of the first issues is the lack of state capacity – districts and schools need additional supports from state education agencies and SEAs lack that capacity for a number of reasons, including:

  • The ability to hire staff who understand school turnaround (as compared to standard or more traditional improvement). Simply shifting staff from the old improvement office to a new turnaround office is not sufficient. The revised SIG program requires additional and different skills from the school building to the U.S. Department of Education.
  •  The fact that state budgets are not pretty right now. For example, the report states that California politicians reduced the amount of SIG funding that could be used for state administration of the program, from the allowable 5%, down to .5%. While the majority of funds should go directly to the schools and districts, SEAs must have the adequate resources to provide support and oversight — .5% is likely insufficient, and the consequences are being felt in the districts.
  • SEAs are implementing too many large programs right now with too few people, most notably Race to the Top. Often times, states are using staff in charge of SIG to also run various aspects of RTTT. While alignment of the various initiatives is absolutely crucial, running two large federal programs is not feasible for one staff (or a few staff) members. The potential of combining RTTT with the revised SIG program could result in major improvements, but doing so well requires a great deal of time, staff, and political will — three things in short supply in many states.

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Conflict of interest vs. quality

The U.S. Department of Education, as well as many State Education Agencies, utilize the peer review process to identify winning applicants to most (if not all) competitive grant funds. In theory, peer reviewers and experts from the field evaluating proposals and grading them against rubrics makes complete sense. In practice, sometimes we’re so concerned about avoiding conflicts of interest that the quality of the reviews suffers.

For example, an upcoming peer review process will include at least a dozen separate competitions, all likely receiving numerous applications from organizations, universities, and partnerships across the country. ED recently contacted me to see if I would like to apply as a peer reviewer for the upcoming review process. I disclosed that while I am interested, I am likely assisting an organization with their application to one of the competitions. In effect, it is likely that I am no longer eligible to act as a peer reviewer for any of the competitions.

I completely understand and agree that a peer reviewer should not be able to review applications in any competition that they have a clear interest in (i.e. I wouldn’t be able to judge any of the applications for same competition I helped write a response for), but what about the other competitions? Based on the scale of this upcoming process, I don’t understand how ED will find enough peer reviewers, with 1) appropriate knowledge in the topic areas, and 2) who have no conflicts of interests to any of the organizations submitting applications to the dozen or so separate competitions.

While eliminating patronage and corruption is critical, ensuring that peer reviewers understand the topic area of the competition, and that applications are judged based on QUALITY, and not how well they can write a response to an RFP, is equally important. There has to be a middle ground.

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