Stunning New Report: Sometimes Hard Decisions are Unpopular

My staff tells me I should be less glib when I title my blog posts, but this one was unavoidable.  EdWeek reports on a new CEP survey that found limited knowledge – among both school officials and the public – of the federal school improvement program.  The supposedly shocking top-line numbers are that only 12% of districts had implemented the program, and that 1/3 of districts didn’t even know about it.

Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t understand why this is a story.  This is a program aimed at the bottom 5% of schools.  We shouldn’t expect every district to be dealing with this issue.  Just as effective teachers aren’t equitably distributed across schools and systems, neither are chronically under-performing schools distributed in a geographically egalitarian manner.  So, not only is the 12% not troubling, it’s encouraging!  This money is not for everyone that wants it.  It’s for the schools and systems with the most challenging problems.  I’d be pissed if the money was going to Greenwich.  Similarly, it would be a shame to distribute the money based on a formula alone, rather than demanding real change in exchange for the funds.  The relatively small number of recipients shouldn’t be cast as a purely negative data point.  (Although, I admittedly wish there weren’t so many districts that claim to know nothing about a giant national initiative.)

But back to the title.  The other big number here is this:

“… 54 percent of those surveyed in a recent public opinion poll said they preferred principals and teachers stay in place and are given outside help to boost a lagging school.”

Two things on this.  First, see the title of the post.  Leadership means sometimes making unpopular decisions.  Those involving personnel – particularly in education – are usually unpopular, but that doesn’t mean they’re always wrong.  (It also doesn’t mean those decisions are always right, by the way.)  Second, I’ll be the first person to admit that we as a country have a lot more to learn about turning around schools at scale.  It’s a practice in its infancy, with some great proof-points for what’s possible.  But we don’t have all the answers.   What we do know, however, is that bringing in professional development – while leaving everything else about a school the same – doesn’t work.  Period.  We’ve spent millions of dollars over the last decade trying to make meaningful progress without really changing the fundamentals, and it hasn’t moved the needle in these particular schools.  More of the same is not a solution.

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