The Other Race to the Top

Over here at the School Turnaround Group, we’ve been arguing that states should think about their 1003g School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds as an “intrastate Race to the Top.”  The new interim requirements provide substantial flexibility for states to consider both intervention quality and capacity to execute when distributing these funds.  While that sounds incredibly unsexy, it’s actually really important.  For years, states and districts have distributed school improvement dollars on a formula basis; now, states can assess whether or not they actually think a strategy will lead to dramatic school change.  This is a huge shift in a large federal program, and states are scrambling to understand how to adjust to the contours of the new program.  The timelines for execution, however, are tight, and because the program was enhanced by ARRA, there is additional pressure to realize the program’s impact quickly.  Rob Manwaring has an excellent take on this over at Quick/Ed.  Here’s a critical point:

” … much of the theory of action of the administration’s agenda hinges on [school turnaround] being successful. I believe that any of these four turnaround approaches can be successful, but implement [sic] details are critically important to the success of any school turnaround effort. And, if these reform efforts fail, it will not only waste a lot of money, it will also damage the creditability of school turnaround models, and damage the credibility of the overall school accountability movement. So the stakes are high, and a rush job will do more damage than good. The federal government should create the space for schools and districts to take their time and get it right. This program should not be so focused on spending money quickly to create jobs and fuel the economy, the other $90 billion of the education stimulus funds was to meet that goal. For these funds, let’s take our time, do the planning, fix the collective bargaining agreements, and other preparatory changes to give these reforms every opportunity to succeed.

Amen to that.  States and districts must balance urgency with doing this hard work intelligently, which is all the more important given the novelty of investing a bunch of federal money in turnaround, which is an inherently risky enterprise.  Rob points to California as a good example of how this is very hard for states to execute, from a practical perspective.  Let me bring it down to the school level.  Most state agencies I interact with either just submitted, or are planning on submitting in the next few weeks, statewide SIG plans to USED.  Let’s say they choose the restart option, which requires choosing an outside partner for turnaround.  Any strong partner will want a role in choosing school leadership and instructional staff.  Moreover, identifying and negotiating terms of an agreement with a strong partner will take at least several months.  And that’s only after the affected schools and LEAs have been identified.  Suddenly, it’s the summer, school is out, and the relevant community hasn’t even been engaged yet.

Same issue with the turnaround model.  If an LEA wants to change substantial portions of the staff, it must engage in teacher hiring now, and leadership hiring two months ago.  LEAs in many states don’t know how they will be affected by this and are bound to be caught – understandably – flat footed on hiring.

In any event, there are plenty of cases in point to be made, but I’m glad Rob kicked off a discussion of this issue.  Check back later today or tomorrow for our new publication on the SIG program.

10 Responses to The Other Race to the Top

  1. L. Howell says:

    This is an insightful and honest assessment of the “real deal” on what is taking place. Here’s a real-time example our group just experienced: timeline for approval of turnaround groups, which by the way, comprise a wide range of organizations. Board approves contracts in June 2010 to allow for firms (if selected) to start for 2010-11 SY. PROBLEM: all the risks of hiring quality leadership, deep community engagement and thoughtful planning WILL NOT happen. Can you say, “false start”.

    On a more basic level, these types of efforts are “change management” programs. It is well documented that 70% of all change programs fail in the for-profit business world. To be sure, with the immense pressure to “spend it quick” the failure will be with execution. And the lessons learned epitaph will read like a basic change management 101 course for all the things that an organization should do were ignored.

    Then, the finger-pointing will start. Since it is an election year, the tips of those fingers will be sharp to be sure, and stoke the flames of politicians to “announce flawed policy” when in fact, it is simply “bad planning” followed by internally weak execution and competencies to drive fundamental change. The yet to be written, GAO study will likely reflect these conclusions, which are imminent. We have a real-life example done by the GAO entitled: Important Steps Taken to Continue Reform Efforts, But Enhanced Planning Could Improve Implementation and Sustainability, found at link below.

    A lot to think about before more half-baked RFPs hit the street asking to quickly spend money with a weak connection to sustainable results and organizational change.

  2. I think you two are saying the same thing I was saying last week when I proposed a Gresham’s Law for turnarounds. You people who do turnarounds right, along with students and educators of course, have the most to lose by a rush to dramatic change. (Now you may not go this far, but I would argue that a turnaround effort is needed, even if it is risky. What we can’t risk is damaging collective bargaining or risking a worsening of the testing culture in turnarounds that may fail. I’ll gamble a lot for turnarounds but not my basic educational values)

    The scale issue seems obvious, though. Its one thing to require those four turnaround options for a couple of hundred (I’m guestimating) schools for voluntery efforts like RttT, but its another to try them on thousands of schools. I’d think that the need to change those options would be a no-brainer.

    I’m wondering what you think about Organizing Schools for Change, and its huge implications for even identifying schools. I doubt there are many districts with even a glimpse of the complexity that the Chicago Consortium documented. How do you get a comprehensive inventory of the “social capital” of a neighborhood if nobody even thought to look into the issue? (regarding the Consortium’s indicators like crime and the percentage of nonparental guardians, my school is just down the road from the wome’s prison of the state that has long been #1 in incarcerating women. And our district of 40,000 has 20,000 children living with grandparents or nonparental custodians [and our school’s rate is disproportionate higher]). In my experience, education leaders don’t have a clue that these dynamics even exist, much less understanding them.

    And here’s my specific point. Even the peerless Consortium said that if they had reported on Chicago turnarounds in 1992, their conclusions would have been wrong and they would have identified issues like teacher quality that weren’t the key. But by looking deeply at the data over a generation they developed a mature understanding.

    So, if want turnarounds to work, we need to slow down. And Rep. Obey (I think) was correct in saying that we shouldn’t go too fast on experiements in an economic downturn when we’ll have a hard time catching our breath. Turnarounds would be much easier as the economy turns around. Turnarounds may not even be possible in a serious economic decline. (I saw how the recession of 2002 completely wiped out my school’s promising turnaround. The month that a recession was declared, the explosion of violence was unbelievable. Our poor families don’t have any buffers or safety nets.)

    And if we think longterm, it makes no sense to stay the course on increasing investments in data, while not being able to afford the early ed increases.

  3. L. Howell says:

    Thank for the insight John, there is a new book done by the wonderful people at University of Chicago, entitle Organizing Schools for Improvement, 2010 see link to order book if not already done so, because the title was a little different you refer to in your post and not sure if you meant the same thing.

    I purchased and it is, arguable one of the most relevant works in the school reform space in terms of utility.

    Your are on to something BIG though, to be sure. The underlying fabric of what you describe will need to be restitched completely to remove the stains and resewn with new thread. What you describe IS where the problems exist; and frankly, it makes the wonderful curriculum and offerings less palatable to implement when you can sustain those investments but for the “social capital” of neighborhoods. The Harlem Children’s Zone provides a credible example. The challenge is having “insiders” within communities who have the integrity, patience and commitment to do something similar. It’s sort of like the Peace Corps in our urban neighborhoods and cities across America.

    Programs like the Peace Corps do work, Teach for America, HCZ, which is where we should consider placing bets to “sustain” rather than quick hits with money. Unfortunately, here is the real deal with many communities of color when people see opportunities to access funds from the government. Look forward to your thoughts on this.

  4. Yeah, I made a typo. I’ve only read it once but I’ve reread parts repeatedly. Its brilliant. I’ll just add one more metaphorical explanation about why they captured my secondary school. Over decades of political canvassing for Black Democrats, I’ve repeatedly crisscrossed the low income 90%+ Black neighborhoods to the east of our school that serve an all Black school district. But I’ve never heard of a candidate canvassing the neighborhood to the east where the kids come to us. The social capital is too low to produce a voter turnout. (I canvassed our hood for Obama anyway,) But if Black politicians don’t even set foot in the neighborhood that lacks so much social capital, what should we expect from educational bureaucrats?

    I sure agree that we need educators to get inside our neighborhoods. How many reformers have an upclose personal connection with the neughborhoods of the “truly disadvantaged?” They’d never send their own kid to a school like mine.

  5. Kathleen Smith says:

    Amen to this posting. We need to consider depth, not breadth. Timing is critical. As an SEA representative, we are moving too fast in territories we know little about. This is a train wreck waiting to happen. I would rather serve five well than twenty with failure.

  6. L. Howell says:

    Kathleen, here is the challenge and the opportunity. The great work done at MassInsight suggests that we can see dramatic improvement, which I do agree to be sure. However, I am not so sure that the Superintendents and school leaders have the chops to lead the kind of change that the MassInsight work suggests. The other issue is, and also the challenge is taking the slow growth approach as you suggest means a lot of children will continue to fail and the RTT funds and ESEA reauthorization will be a giant waste of money and political capital.

    Okay, i think I have a way to address the issue of speed, and it is an approach I have implemented with a client and it actually works. It is referred to as Rapid Results: How 100-Day Projects build the capacity for large-scale change. This stuff works and works well. It is a model widely adopted by the World Bank and implemented to solve BIG social problems that deal with HIV, terrorism, healthcare and education in developing countries.

    I applied the concept to deal address student recovery and dropout and we actually developed and implemented a solution in under 100 days. This is where the scale issue gets addressed, because once everyone is behaving this way and modeling the approach, there is across the board buy-in, excitement and a willingness to really understand the root causes and develop relevant solutions that people own. These ingredients tend to be, by and large what is missing when turning around failing schools, based on my experience.

  7. L. Howell,

    Pardon my ignorance on this, but the link to your site didn’t work, and I really want to read more about your 100 day projects.

    By the way, when you pointed out my typo I became afraid that I’d made the same mistake in my blog post. My take, without the mistake, is now up at

  8. L. Howell says:

    Sure thing, in the reply there was an https:// which and should be http:// here is actual link. Glad to share more details.

  9. Kathleen Smith says:

    Mr. Howell,

    I am not suggesting incremental approaches. Frankly, if turnaround for students takes three years it is hopeless. The plans in place advocate three years. For students not reading iin 7th grade on grade level, that result is useless. I advocate for a slower scale up that gets dramatic results for kids not EMOs. That kind of work hasn’t been tackled and will not be tackled the way the Feds have boxed in school reform.

  10. Pingback: Thompson: Turnarounds as Snake Oil | Expert Reviewz!

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