Response to Representative Judy Chu’s SIG Framework

As you know, the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight has consistently stated that to be effective, school turnaround must be dramatic in nature.  History has shown that light-touch interventions only result in marginal impact.

The federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) requirements, while not perfect, are aligned with this notion of dramatic reform.  However, Congresswoman Judy Chu has recently proposed a new framework for the SIG program that would abandon the well-known school intervention models – turnaround, restart, closure, and transformation – in favor of light-touch school improvement strategies.  While we believe that the SIG requirements need improvement, we are concerned about the potential impact – or, rather, lack of impact – of Congresswoman Chu’s recommendations on chronically low-performing schools.

Please read our full statement below or on our website.

Be sure to also read Rick Hess’s related post on Ed Week, Assessing Rep. Chu’s Attach on School Improvement Grant Program.



Framework Attempts to Turn Back the Clock on School Reform

In December 2009, the U.S. Department of Education released a new set of priorities for the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program in response to years of unsuccessful, light-touch school intervention strategies promoted by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. The revised priorities give districts four intervention options for their chronically lowest-performing schools: turnaround, restart, closure, and transformation.

“The Department developed these intervention models to maximize the impact of an unprecedented $4 billion in SIG funds available to states and districts this year, instead of wasting these dollars on the failed school improvement strategies of the past,” stated William Guenther, President of Mass Insight Education.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA 32nd), member of the House Education and Labor Committee, takes a markedly different stance on the revised program. Chu recently proposed a new framework for SIG that attempts to remove any “stick” associated with the current intervention models – including removing school staff, introducing management organizations, or implementing teacher evaluation systems – in favor of handing schools a bigger “carrot” in the form of community engagement, professional development, and behavioral support services.

“It’s important to remember that the schools eligible for SIG are those schools where nothing we’ve done in the past has worked,” said Justin Cohen, President of The School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight. “None of the recommendations proposed in Chu’s report were prohibited under NCLB’s school improvement framework, and yet the number of underperforming schools has continued to grow.”

Dramatically changing academic performance in an underperforming school requires a shift in the school’s culture. This should include contracting with a Lead Partner to implement a turnaround plan and giving the Lead Partner greater autonomy over staffing; this flexibility is necessary to ensure that every teacher and administrator in a school is unequivocally committed to that school’s particular change process. Without giving principals or school operators more authority over who works in their buildings, outdated human resource policies, such as the notorious “last in, first out” rule, will ensure that our most vulnerable schools and children rarely have access to our most talented and experienced educators.

Said Cohen, “Flexibility for schools is critical to drive change, but flexibility without real accountability is a recipe for maintaining the status quo. Doing away with the turnaround, restart and closure models, instead of strengthening them by incorporating elements of Chu’s framework, will mean taking a giant step backwards in school reform.”


Thought of the Day

If a school failed, and there didn’t exist billions in federal dollars to address that failure, would we be having this conversation?

USED Parental Options/Information Conference

Blogging today from USED’s conference for the office of parental options and information, which includes charter schools.  I was on a plenary panel with sharp folks from Green Dot and AUSL.  We discussed a ton of stuff, but there was remarkable consensus on the following items:

1) Community engagement – engaging the community early and often in the turnaround process is critical.  It’s impossible to over-communicate change.

2) Planning, planning, planning – ideally, turnaround operators should have a full year of planning (Year 0), and even before that, they should be readying themselves for that planning year.  Yes, that’s right … planning for the planning.

3) Strong relationships with districts – turnaround at scale will require the witting participation of districts in the process.  States and the federal government should do everything they can to make it easier for districts to make hard choices.

Turnaround’s Inclusion in NCLB Discussions

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) held a public hearing entitled, “Losing Patience with Chronically Low-Performing Schools: How to Improve School Improvement” on September 2, 2009. Education leaders and policy experts from around the country provided testimony on the success and failure of past intervention efforts, potential innovations, and possible strategies that would help NCLB become more effective at turning around chronically low-performing schools.

Read the written testimony  from Mass Insight’s Senior Field Consultant, Michael Contompasis. See the video from the testimony on CSPAN.

USED Guidance Reflects The Turnaround Challenge Framework

Secretary Duncan’s staff recently announced draft guidance for the $3.5 billion allocated for School Improvement Grants (1003(g)). A great deal of the guidance  closely aligns with the framework presented in The Turnaround Challenge, as well as many of the resources currently available on our website.

See Education Counsel’s summary for an overview of the guidance. Public comments are due to USED at the end of the month.

Some of the comments we’ve heard to date state that the guidance is too rigid and prescriptive, but we think USED is taking the right steps to ensure that the status quo is changed.

As currently drafted, states and districts will need to prioritize their schools, governance structures and operations will need to be adjusted, and all schools that receive funds will be held accountable for making progress (above and beyond AYP measurements). All changes, that are absolutely necessary to make the type of improvements that are so urgently needed to turnaround these chronically low-performing schools.