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Teachers, Students Deserve Support, Not the Guillotine

July 24, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

There is a sense of desperation that pervades the highest levels of education, both in the old federal administration and in the new.

Both the Bush and the Obama administrations said and say they want to see better results from our students; to find the poorest performing schools and "turn them around."

Bush's acid test was the phony No Child Left Behind law, which uses a high-stakes test to measure student achievement and bases school performance on the results. Schools that don't measure up after several years are "restructured," which is to say leadership and staff were shuffled out of the school.

The Obama administration's public thoughts are still developing, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made some ideas clear: He said recently there are about 5,000 schools in the U.S. that could be considered underperforming, and that the administration is devoted to turning these schools around.

NCLB is overdue for re-authorization - most believe it will be addressed as early as October, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., sits on the House Education and Labor Committee while Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Both will have a say in how the law will be reshaped.

For now, Duncan is relying on dropout rates to determine if schools are performing. But the devil is in the details when computing dropouts: Not all methods are the same and some reflect badly on Minneapolis and St. Paul schools while others don't.

In a recent interview, Minneapolis Public Schools researcher David Heistad said dropout figures don't correctly incorporate student mobility. Some students leave the district for charter schools and some open enroll in suburban districts. Heistad said Minneapolis district research shows a graduation rate of nearly 67 percent, almost 20 percentage points higher than some national dropout reports

This means that schools could face restructuring using inaccurate dropout data - just the same problem that NCLB brings with its high-stakes test data. While NCLB had the unattainable goal of full compliance by 2014 (a goal half of Minnesota schools can't reach today, and the standards are rising), Duncan's plan calls for restructuring that will take one year or less to achieve.

In a June speech to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Duncan outlined four strategies to restructure schools:

The first is to award planning grants in the fall so new principals and lead teachers can adapt curriculum to meet the needs of the students. They recruit teachers in the spring and 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. ...  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," he said.

The second involves turning the administration and staff over to a charter or for-profit management organization. He didn't elucidate how this would turn the school around.

The third strategy keeps most of the existing staff but changes the culture in the following ways:

  • 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," Duncan said.

Minnesota educators who have suffered years of financial strangulation - state aid for schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent since 2003 - might chortle at Duncan's call for enough resources to get the job done.

The fourth is to close under-performing schools and reenroll the students in better schools. "It instantly improves the learning conditions for those kids and brings a failing school to a swift and thorough conclusion," Duncan said.

As a study by Macalester College and Minnesota 2020, "No Child Left Behind, The Teacher's Voice," found that Minnesota teachers have soundly rejected NCLB as unworkable. Its high-stakes testing leads to an end as inevitable as a hangman's rope. As they stand now, Duncan's proposals might be more speedy, but only in the way a guillotine brings its' inevitable end.

We need leadership both at the state and national level that offers students, teachers and administrators a hand up, not a fist in the face. For too long Minnesota education has been asked to do too much with too little then told they aren't performing well. What Minnesota students require now is a leader who will give educators what they need to do their jobs then let them do their jobs.

It's as simple as that.


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