Political Cover in Practice

Now that we’ve moved from the uber-sexy competition for Race to the Top dollars to the just-as-important-but-optically-banal implementation phase, it’s harder to make salient reform points about the program.

Oh wait, what’s that Delaware?

In a warning to districts that want to backtrack on their Race to the Top promises, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is publicly supporting state officials in Delaware who plan to withhold $11 million from the Christina School District for reneging on school-turnaround plans.

Duncan’s statement issued this evening marks the first time he’s had to take sides as 12 states and their participating districts work to implement the $4 billion in Race to the Top awards.

From now on, whenever someone asks me what “political cover” looks like in practice, I will send them this article. Also, this is a great example of back-end accountability. As you all know, I maintain healthy skepticism with respect to accountability that looks at inputs instead of outcomes. Here you have a state chief holding folks accountable for implementation – not just promises – and that’s great.


Keeping Teachers in Challenged Schools

Andy Rotherham’s TIME column for the week looks at some recent studies on teacher effectiveness. The whole thing is worth a read, and I want to expand on one part, which deals with expanding the number of National Board teachers in challenged schools:

Simpkins found that the number of National Board teachers in challenging schools is increasing … but mostly because teachers in those schools are earning the credential — not because teachers with the credential are changing schools. He also found that National Board teachers are no more likely to stay in those schools than other teachers. These results are disappointing for proponents … of tying National Board bonuses to service in high-poverty schools as a way to improve equity for low-income students.

It’s important to recognize that compensation alone rarely is the reason folks make professional decisions or express job satisfaction. There’s a fairly dense body of research that illustrates this point. Compensation is a factor in job satisfaction, but it usually ranks lower than things like having the opportunity to use one’s skills/abilities, feeling like there’s more potential for learning in one’s role, maintaining manageable levels of stress, and being a part of something meaningful. All of those things are REALLY hard to accomplish in a chronically under-performing school, and additional compensation will never be sufficient to drive the most effective teachers to teach in those schools.

Putting those things in place, however, is easier said than done. In short, that’s “culture change,” and it’s nearly impossible to do in the old district structure that treats challenged schools as a scourge. We need new organizational units within districts that can flip that mentality on its head and make failing schools the place where rockstar teachers go to get even more effective.

Risk Calculus and Turnaround

My last post at “Rick Hess Straight Up” was about the federal and state roles in school turnaround. You can read it here. It was a lot of fun to steal someone else’s blog space, and I hope that some new readers have found this blog as a result. Thanks again to Rick for making that happen!

I want to reiterate something I said in that post:

Right now, the downside risk of trying something new in failing schools, and subsequently falling short, is greater than continuing to fail in the same old ways.

This is just another manifestation of low expectations. Warren Buffett apparently once suggested that if we wanted to fix failing schools we should just outlaw private schools and then randomly assign every child in America to a public school. This is a clever thought experiment, but it’s also illustrative of our tolerance for inadequacy in education outcomes when it comes to disadvantaged children.

The point is, the downside risk of continuing to fail would be ENORMOUS if the communities served by failing schools were more politically empowered. One great way to maintain a sense of urgency around fixing chronically underperforming schools is for states and the feds to continue to leverage the bully pulpit.

The District Role in Turnaround

My latest post at “Rick Hess Straight Up” focuses on the district role in school turnaround. From the piece:

The role of the district, then, should be to create a protected space for turnaround principals and Lead Partners to exercise significant school-level authority, while maintaining strong control over the expected leading and lagging indicators of change. In other words: tight on ends, loose on means.** This can be achieved by creating performance contracts with Lead Partners to manage the day-to-day change process in schools. In geographies where we are unlikely to find Lead Partners, districts and civic communities should come together to create entirely new in-district organizational units to manage the change, while vesting external “Advisory Councils” – composed of empowered stakeholders – with the authority to provide both political cover and a sustaining force for the work, in the nearly inevitable case of leadership turnover during the turnaround process. The critical point is this: whether you use an external Lead Partner or an internal unit, change management expertise is a must.

Turnaround DNA

Part 2 of my “Rick Hess Straight Up” blog stint is live. It’s got a fun Platonic dialogue (sort of) … here’s a taste:

It’s easy to see how districts end up relying on amazingly talented principals who routinely break the rules when the rules are designed to produce incremental improvements at most schools… not to produce dramatic improvement in the few chronically failing schools. It’s probably easiest for districts to “look the other way” while their most talented turnaround artists skirt established rules, rather than reworking decades’ worth of policies. As long as these principals have the tacit approval of someone within the system – whether it’s the superintendent him-/herself or the community being served – they can usually get away with pushing boundaries.

Day One at RHSU

Check out my first post over at “Rick Hess Straight Up!” Here’s a preview:

What I hope to do over the course of this week is to discuss school turnaround from four critical perspectives: the school, the district/cluster, the state, and the federal government. Yes, turnaround is about individual schools, but it’s also about systems. If a school fails for two years, shame on the school; if it fails for 20 years – which some do – shame on everyone. At the School Turnaround Group we talk about the “Three Cs”: conditions, capacity, and clustering. I will try to examine each level through these lenses. Are we changing the conditions under which schools operate? Are we developing and insourcing the right kind of capacity – like best-in-class “Lead Partner” organizations – to fix schools? Are we clustering efforts so that we can actually scale what works?

File Under: Neighborhood, There Goes

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m going to do a guest spot at a much more popular blog next week.

Rick Hess is going to AERA and has made the unfortunate mistake of leaving his EdWeek blog in my far less capable hands. His intro note was far too kind, and now I have the daunting challenge of pleasing what I can only imagine are some of the most nuanced and fierce education policy thinkers/consumers on the interwebs.

In any event, in lieu of trying to have enough thoughts for two blogs next week,* I will link here to anything I write over at “Rick Hess: Straight Up.” I’ll be sure to ask about whether or not there’s a chaser involved while I’m there …

*I can barely manage this one as it is.