12:00 PM | Posted in
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a press release yesterday from his remarks at a meeting of public charter schools. In that statement he suggested four methods by which we can turn around those schools that "have failed to make progress year after year".

The first option is based on what we did in Chicago. We awarded planning grants in the fall so new principals and lead teachers could develop and adapt curriculum to better meet the needs of the students. During the spring, they begin recruiting teachers and they take over the school in June.

Under this model, the children stay and the staff leaves. Teachers can reapply for their jobs and some get rehired, but most go elsewhere. A few leave the profession, which is not all bad. Not everyone is cut out for teaching. Like every profession, people burn out. In our view, at least half of the staff and the leadership should be completely new if you really want a culture change -- and that may very well be a requirement of the grants.

Our second option also involves replacing the staff and leadership and turning it over to a charter or for-profit management organization. As I mentioned, Green Dot, Mastery Charters and AUSL are doing this, but we need more of you to get in the game. I know this is tough work – but there is an upside. You start with a school full of kids so there is no student recruiting and you also get a building – which has been a big obstacle for many charter operators.

Obviously, you need to build a full staff more quickly – but that can be done. I am confident that many charter operators will figure this out and succeed brilliantly. I also recognize that you won't always succeed. I accept that – but what I won't accept is a nation that turns its back on millions of children in failing schools – while successful models are flourishing in the next community or the next town.

Our third turnaround model keeps most of the existing staff but changes the culture in the following ways. Again, we are open to input on this, but at a minimum:
  • They must establish a rigorous performance evaluation system along with more support, training and mentoring.
  • They must change and strengthen the curriculum and instructional program.
  • They must increase learning time for kids during afternoons, weekends, and in the summer -- and provide more time for teachers to collaborate, plan and strategize.
  • And principals and leadership teams must be given more flexibility around budgeting, staffing and calendar.
They must use everything we know about how to create a successful school culture – but do it all at once – with enough resources to get the job done. This approach makes more sense in smaller communities where there isn't a ready supply of new teachers and leaders -- and where the current staff won't have other job options. This model also gives unions an opportunity to take responsibility for fixing schools without replacing staff. We are beginning a conversation with the unions about flexibility with respect to our most under-performing schools. I expect they'll meet us more than halfway – because they share our concern. They understand that no one can accept failure.

But we should also be crystal clear: This model cannot be a dodge to avoid difficult but necessary choices. This cannot be the easy way out. It has to work and show results – quickly – in real and measurable ways in terms of attendance, parent involvement and student achievement.

All of these models assume a year or more of planning. We should be starting today to build teams that will take over schools in the fall of 2010. Schools and districts can use Title I funds right now to start the planning process.

The last of our four turnaround models is simply to close under-performing schools and reenroll the students in better schools. This may seem like surrender – but in some cases it's the only responsible thing to do. It instantly improves the learning conditions for those kids and brings a failing school to a swift and thorough conclusion.

While these appear to be interesting options and merit discussion, there is an important aspect of this debate over education reform that always gets overlooked despite being the most important factor in finding a solution. That aspect is the definition of progress. Until we can find a standard definition of progress we will continue to spin our wheels with solutions to solve a problem which we have yet to define.

With each student starting at different points each and every year, is it wise to define progress as one particular point or percentage? The student who goes from 20% to 45%, while still having failed is technically "progressing" more than the student who goes from 55% to 60%.

The other component is the method by which we evaluate the "progress" of students from year to year. Between rote standardized testing and more complex assessment tools, there must be some basic agreement on assessing progress or these labels of progressing or not progressing will be relatively meaningless. Educators, if given input and the ability to determine these definitions, will be far more likely to buy into achieving these goals. If not, many will continue to see them as little more than meaningless labels that have little to do whether their children are actually "progressing".