Archive for Federal Policy

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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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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GAO review of SIG year 1: Not many surprises

Apologies for the blog summer vacation …

The General Accountability Office issued a report in July that examines the early implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant program.

The report is a useful document that summarizes the major barriers of the SIG program (from the perspective of SEA improvement directors, as well as other education leaders across the country). But, from my perspective, none of the findings are all that shocking. Anyone who works with states, districts or schools on the implementation of the SIG program could come up with most of the problems cited in the GAO report.

The major issues include:

  • Leaders lack political will to make the tough decisions,
  • There’s a lack of implementing with fidelity,
  • Districts lack capacity to actually implement reforms, and
  • The approval process takes too long (at both the federal and state levels). In effect, schools are unable to begin implementation until the summer, or in some cases, after the school year begins.

In respect to the first issue, leaders (district and state) should be as accountable for the improvement of schools as principals. The leaders must make the tough decisions, stand behind the plans, and ensure reforms are implemented with fidelity. If the leader can’t lead the state or district, why should they keep their job? We expect teachers and principals to know be accountable for performance, so should district staff.

Implementing with fidelity is often an issue when making any real changes to a system. Partially implementing or cutting corners is the way to “satisfy” requirements without actually improving the system as a whole. Unless improvements are sustainable, the requirements of the four SIG models should not be considered accomplished.

Asking a district with low-performing schools to develop a plan to turn the school around, to contract with partners who will assist that process, and to actually to do the work may work in a few places, but may result in chaos in others. Without significant outside assistance, how can district staff — who allowed a school to become so low-performing in the first place — be expected to 1) know what to do to improve the school, 2) do the work, and 3) ensure that the changes are sustainable.

Finally, the timeline for federal approval of state applications is cited as a problem in a number of places (including a CEP report). USED is making changes to modify the timeline, but even with changes, the timeline will remain an issue as the “planning” year and year 1 are essentially combined. If a school is lucky, it is awarded a SIG grant in the spring and is able to use the entire summer to asses, plan and begin implementation.

This all said, until the student performance of year 1 can be analyzed, we’re unable to truly determine the value of the revised SIG federal guidelines.

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Dance of the principal lemons

Removing the principal of a persistently low-performing school is one of the steps required in most federally funded school improvement efforts. The “new” principal should have the skills and personality to lead a drastic improvement and to create a sustainable environment for continued improvement, after the federal funds are removed. As discussed in a recent EdWeek article, Ousted Principals Quickly Find New Education Jobs, many schools and districts have been able to shift people around to meet the federal requirements, while not making some of the tough decisions that are needed for the best interest of students, i.e. removing an underperforming principal from school administration.

Some principals (like some teachers) may need to leave the profession altogether, but others simply need to work in a different environment. They might be great principals in a new school, but they cannot meet the extreme needs and changes required in a persistently low-performing school. In such cases, these principals could be placed within another school in the district and thrive.

Too often, these principals, who were not effective in a low-performing school, receive positions in another low-performing or struggling school, and sometimes they’re even hired as a district’s “turnaround officer.” He or she has shown that he/she does not have the skills, knowledge, and/or temperament to lead a turnaround, and simply moving that person to a position with more authority is not effective. This dance of the lemons hurts the children in these schools, harms the teachers who need strong instructional and administrative leaders, and adversely impacts the profession as a whole.

Schools and districts struggle to find appropriate turnaround principals to replace the removed staff, and this is especially apparent in rural areas. Leading a school turnaround (or the federal transformation model) is not easy work and it takes a special person, or team, to do it well. There are a number of principal training programs that are being used to build stronger capacity within schools and districts (UVA’s School Turnaround Specialist Program is one such program) and some districts and states are building their own “Grow your Own” turnaround principal training programs. Other states and districts are using external consultants or Lead Turnaround Partners to supplement the local staff and to guide the school and district through the many requirements of the various federal improvement models. Only consultants & lead partners that have experience in transforming schools and knowledge of a persistently low-performing school should be hired.

There are not any easy answers for how to implement successful school improvement efforts, but it is clear that simply moving around staff who don’t have the skills or personalities to do this challenging work will not help the situation. Superintendents and school boards need to make the tough decisions and that may require removing staff from both a school building, and more challenging, the district.

State Education Agencies also play a role here, and they must ensure that the School Improvement Grants are used effectively. This oversight role includes paying attention to who is leading the improvement efforts both at the school and within the district, and possibly not granting 2011-12 SIG funds to schools or divisions who have found and taken advantage of such loopholes.

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New Report: SIG Promising Practices from Oklahoma

Today, the Center on Innovation & Accountability released a promising practice case study, prepared by Corbett Education Consulting, that highlights how a strong statewide system of support can provide focus and sustainability to a state’s School Improvement Grant program.

Situating School Improvement Grants within a Coherent System of Support

Oklahoma developed a strong foundation for school improvement efforts over the last several years. The influx of 2010-11 federal School Improvement Grant dollars allowed the state’s Turnaround Office to increase the intensity and enhance the services and supports provided to the schools and districts with the greatest needs.

Oklahoma’s statewide system of support has evolved over the years and now includes the following key components:

Classification of schools into three tiers based on state assessments; „

Differentiation of supports based on classification and diagnosis of practices relative to the Oklahoma Nine Essential Elements and their 90 indicators;

„• External expertise from School Support Teams that guide schools in improvement status to bring their operations into alignment with the standards of practice;

• School improvement planning process based on the Oklahoma Nine Essential Elements, including 90 indicators, and facilitated by the web-based WISE Tool; and

What Works in Oklahoma institutes and publications derived from ongoing research on the Oklahoma Nine Essential Elements and their indicators by Marzano and Associates.

As additional promising practices, related to the School Improvement Grant program, emerge over the upcoming months, those strategies can be gathered, codified, and shared with other states and districts.

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Not surprising that charters weren’t more common

I’m not surprised that less than 5% of schools receiving School Improvement Grant funds chose the charter takeover model. See EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog for more detail on which federally recommended improvement model schools selected. Why am I not surprised?

1) the districts usually write the SIG applications, so why (besides for the well-being of students) would a district choose to relinquish control over a school (and the money that comes with it)?

2) the SIG timeline was extremely tight. Efforts were supposed to begin this school year, so if a charter takeover was selected, it’d be logistically challenging (though not impossible) to transition a school during the school year and to potentially have the old failing school and the new charter school working in the same building.

3) Some states still don’t have charter laws, so it immediately takes that option off the table, especially in more rural states.

4) There’s a lack of good Charter Management Organizations who are willing to take on turnaround efforts, “new starts” are much easier than transitioning a chronically low-performing school.

A charter takeover may be “cleaner,” but it also requires a great deal of political will and community support to become successful. The charter takeover option may become more popular if some of the initial transformation and turnaround efforts aren’t successful.

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