New Blog – Change Your Links

The School Turnaround Group has a new blog:


Please change your links accordingly, and thanks for continuing to follow our work!

Tighter on Ends, Looser on Means

No child should have to attend a school that for years has failed to improve student outcomes. Fortunately, most of the country seems to agree on this, and lately I spend far less time convincing folks that something has to change. Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of agreement about what exactly should change, and in the meantime, there are still thousands of schools that continue to let down children and families every single day. 

That said, a plethora of recent studies on the effectiveness of school turnaround – and more specifically, the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program  – should spur some conversation about future efforts to remedy chronic failure.

The good news? Turnaround can dramatically – and surprisingly quickly – increase student achievement, when districts address fundamental, politically sensitive issues. The bad news? It’s still too easy to do what we know doesn’t work: light-touch, silver-bullet solutions that are much less politically risky.

So how do we stop doing what doesn’t work? The feds and states have an important role to play, but I worry that policymakers are focused on the wrong issues. We need to stop worrying whether there are four turnaround models or six models or a dozen models.

Instead, we need to worry about two things: 

1)   Are districts fundamentally changing the structures and operating conditions around chronically underperforming schools, while delegating day-to-day decisions to accountable operational units that are closer to children? We’re foolish if we think that the top-down bureaucracies that were complicit in chronic failure will be the same ones that reverse the trend. We need to make decisions – and spend dollars – closer to students.

2)   Are schools seeing measurable increases in student achievement after two years? Are leading indicators of change – like increases in credit accumulation and decreases in absences/dropouts – changing after one year?

It’s an easy enough trade to conceptualize: big changes for big results. But it’s still politically difficult. SIG funds are both a carrot and a stick. If used smartly, they can make a real difference for the hundreds of thousands of kids still trapped in bad schools. Some states like Delaware, Indiana, New York and Louisiana get it; they are using SIG as a lever to demand real structural changes in districts and schools. In essence, they are making the risk of maintaining the failing status quo greater than the risk of doing things differently. Until that approach becomes the norm, we’re making it too easy for folks to get off the hook for real change. 

Turnaround Grants for Bad Charters

Look out, Joe Siedlecki from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is blogging!

He has a good post up about whether or not it’s wise to use School Improvement Grants to turnaround bad charter schools. He thinks “no,” and I basically agree. The whole bargain with charters is more authority for more accountability, and without the credible threat of closure, the whole accountability thing goes out the window.

I feel basically the same about traditional public schools, AFTER they’ve been given charter-like authority in a turnaround context.

NCLB, We Hardly Knew Ye

Politics K-12 has a good summary of EdSec Duncan’s weekend offer to states: adopt RtTT style reforms, and  we’ll relax those pesky NCLB requirements that you hate. Andy Rotherham has a smart take here, basically arguing that most of federal policy under Obama/Duncan has already made some of this moot.

So, you basically have Duncan pulling the levers at his disposal, in spite of a sclerotic congress. And with this move – set against RtTT, SIG, and a host of other activities – NCLB continues to die, not in one swift motion, but by the proverbial thousand paper cuts.

While the policy and politics play out at the federal level, I’m worried about what schools, teachers, and principals are going to do amidst the inevitable communications headache that comes with this new information. Districts already have a hard enough time implementing the dictates of federal policy. While policy makers might be able to understand the realpolitik of federal policy suddenly becoming “moot,” I predict messiness as educators try to figure out what to do amidst the ambiguity.

Student Voice!

Gotham Schools has a great story about students in the Bronx organizing around school turnaround:

The students, who attend Samuel Gompers High School, have a specific improvement model in mind: the “re-start” option … Gompers is one of nine poorly performing high schools that are eligible for the federal help, but are not part of the city’s application for federal turnaround grants … “Why hasn’t the DOE given the grants to all the schools?” Gompers sophomore Sony Cabral asked at the rally. “They’re setting us up for failure.”

I’ve touched on this before, but the student voice often is completely absent from conversations about school turnaround. “Sistas and Brothas United” – the student group that organized around this issue – is filling a very important void. Kudos to them for that. Student and family demand should be a factor – though one of many – in determining school reform strategies, especially from the standpoint of sustainability.

All that said, the school improvement grants already constitute a relatively small portion of city and state budget. The only way to create the conditions for those grants to be successful is to give larger grants to fewer schools. Unpopular? Certainly, so school officials should choose grantees wisely. And it’s not bad to have a bunch of students begging for change!

What Can Federal Policy Do?

Rick has a good post about an event he hosted on Monday to discuss the history of federal intervention in schooling:

There seemed to be a shared sense that the feds can have enjoyed substantial success when it came to ensuring access for vulnerable populations (think IDEA), using cash to push states to adopt clear-cut policies (as with NCLB’s assessment requirements), using the bully pulpit to raise issues on the agenda, and promoting transparency and information … There was much more skepticism about the federal government’s ability to actually improve schools.

That sounds about right to me. When it comes to K-12 education, the feds have an outsized influence on the agenda relative to the proportion of money and energy that we spend at the federal level. That asymmetry lends itself well to aspirational goal setting, but doesn’t necessarily assure a clear path to improving schools. I’ve said this a few times, but you can’t legislate schools and people being better at their jobs. That said, the slowness of bureaucratic change almost necessitates the establishment of unreasonable goals. That’s the only way to get systems to move with urgency. Providing those systems and people with the tools to move in the right direction is an entirely different exercise.

Getting in the Weeds

If you’re interested in seeing what the local politics of school turnaround look like, you could do a lot worse than this blog item by Mary Pasciak. It’s got a lot of great stuff about community engagement, school board tactics, union politics, and more.

This piece also provides a great opportunity to make a point about how the average American’s “political attention span” interfaces with education policy. While Americans are paying more attention to national politics these days, participation in local politics is still pretty dismal. But,the vast majority of education policy decisions are still made at the local level. My take is that the average citizen attends most closely to presidential politics, followed by other major state and federal political figures, then local officeholders, then school boards, then local union politics. You should probably invert that structure when thinking about relative importance for education policy. This is somewhat of a straw-man, because federal influence varies depending on concentrations of poverty and state funding systems, but it’s not far off.