Have you heard that Pennsylvania is receiving $141 million to turn around its persistently lowest achieving schools? The announcement was made on June 9, by Arnie Duncan. According to the Department of Education, this money is part of the $3.5 billion made available to schools this spring as part of the 2009 budget and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. According to Duncan, “When a school continues to perform in the bottom five percent of the state and isn’t showing signs of growth or has graduation rates below 60 percent, something dramatic needs to be done. Turning around our worst performing schools is difficult for everyone but it is critical that we show the courage to do the right thing by kids.”
So, what does this mean for states like Pennsylvania who qualify for this money? Well, they have to follow one of these models in order to radically improve the educational systems in their states:
* TURNAROUND MODEL: Replace the principal, screen existing school staff, and rehire no more than half the teachers; adopt a new governance structure; and improve the school through curriculum reform, professional development, extending learning time, and other strategies.
* RESTART MODEL: Convert a school or close it and re-open it as a charter school or under an education management organization.
* SCHOOL CLOSURE: Close the school and send the students to higher-achieving schools in the district.
* TRANSFORMATION MODEL: Replace the principal and improve the school through comprehensive curriculum reform, professional development, extending learning time, and other strategies.
All of these, to varying degrees, are extremely radical steps which will ultimately be considered as threatening to the individuals involved in the affected schools. There are drawbacks to each, but let’s try to break it down. My first concern with the broad assumption that a school has to be turned around is precisely this: Is the school the problem, or is it the environment or the social decay in which the school is located that is the real culprit here? I continue to state, without equivocation, that until the environment these children live in changes, and it is not only acceptable but safe to go to school and get an education, no amount of intervention within the schools will be completely successful in turning these schools around. Having stated this obvious fact, for the rest of this blog, my purpose is to look a little deeper into these four methods to discern the pros and cons of each.
Clearly, the assumption of all of these approaches is that the principal has contributed through negligence or mismanagement to help create an environment which is not conducive to learning. In my opinion, principals should only be removed if careful examination of their record were to reveal inadequacies and failures. Otherwise, keep the administrator and work from there. And I have a real problem with the implied assumption with the Turnaround Method that the problem is the majority of the teaching staff. Why else is there a restriction that, at the most, only 50% of the teachers should stay on staff?
The School Closure method seems very unfair for so many reasons that it is hard to zero in on just one. First, it implies that everyone in that school was ineffective in the performance of their job. I find that impossible to fathom, let alone believe. And I can’t even imagine the navigational nightmare involved in redistributing all of these poor school-less children to other schools, not to mention what such an increase in student numbers would do to the schools which would have to accommodate the new arrivals. It just sounds like a total nightmare to me.
I refuse to address the Restart Model, so that leaves the Transformation Model. Of all of the above, I feel that this is the method that seems to be the fairest, although I wouldn’t feel that way if I was the principal. Let’s face it, is there any school anywhere that wouldn’t benefit from some transformation? What school would not turnaround with “comprehensive curriculum reform, professional development, and other strategies”? (Notice that I took out the “extended learning time” because I have said in past blogs, and continue to maintain, that I think a longer school day is counterproductive. If any additional time is going to be tacked onto learning time, let it be adding on days to the school calendar not hours to each day.)
True turnaround of a school, in my humble opinion, can and should be accomplished with the original staff working together to bring about necessary change. Give teachers who have not been effective the opportunity to improve and grow. Then if they continue to be ineffective, let them go. Imagine the pride and solidarity that a successful transformation would create! These schools would serve as models to other schools that change is possible when there is money to support it and people working together to make it happen.
So, let the transformations begin! And good luck to all of you in Pennsylvania.
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Changes in Teaching, Educational Reform, Funding Education, Teacher-World's Blog