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SFUSD Board Member Questions Turnaround Policies

January 19, 2011

In my last post, I reacted to news from San Francisco, where a number of “persistently low-performing” schools will receive a federal school improvement grants (SIG) as part of the government’s “turnaround” policy.  There are only four approved models or methods for school turnarounds, and the rigidity of the policy based on so little research and prior success has generated considerable criticism.  My fellow InterACT blogger, Martha Infante, recently set about answering a question about schools in California: “The Affluent, Failing, Public School: Does It Really Exist?” And to no one’s surprise, the answer is no.  Those of us in the profession are well aware that the ends of the school rankings spectrum reflect differences in circumstances and resources much more than they reflect differences in educators and their practices.  Yet, school turnaround models approved by the government assume that schools needing improvement must undergo some kind of shake-up or disruption to their staff.  Talk about “strings attached” – schools receiving grants must replace the principal, replace half the teachers, reorganize the school as a charter, or simply shut down (with funding then going to the district to provide services in the students’ new schools).  The allure of new funding for good works means that schools around the country are bowing to the federal government and taking steps that they don’t really believe in just because they’re desparate for money.  Such unenlightened and aggressive policy-making at the federal level seriously undermines local control over schools and local initiatives to address our needs.   Most schools are selecting the first option, figuring it’s the least disruptive to replace one person, even if it is the principal.  However, there are limits to how many schools in a district can choose that option – hence the article about three San Francisco schools that will begin next school year with at least 50% new teachers.

Rachel Norton

Rachel Norton

The article I discussed in my last post quotes a parent, teacher, and district administrators who all recognize that replacing half of the teachers is not the solution to the schools’ problems, and in fact, might make improvement even more difficult.  So, I thought it would interesting to pose some questions to Rachel Norton, a member of the San Francisco School Board.  Norton writes a blog about local, state, and national education issues, and her perspective as a Board member always adds to my understanding of those issues.  As a board member, she had to weigh the benefits of the grants against the costs of disrupting schools, and she agreed to let me publish some of her thoughts on these issues (posted below, with my questions in bold and her emailed replies below each question).

1.  Do you think the shake-ups are ever necessary (either involving principals – who seem to take the fall most often – or teachers)?  If ever, how often?

Rachel Norton:  One of the things I object to in the SIG requirements is the need to point fingers – I have certainly seen failing teachers and I have also seen failing leadership, but my sense is that failing individuals are not the reason for the problems we have in education. I don’t think we set clear expectations for either teachers or administrators and I know that in the case of administrators we do not adequately support principals. How then can we expect them to turn around and provide instructional leadership and support to teachers? I haven’t seen that many clear cut cases of teacher/principal incompetence, but I have teachers and principals who could have performed at a higher level if they had been appropriately supported.

2.  Do you think the SIGs will accomplish good because of the staff changes, or despite them?

RN:  That’s actually a hard question. I do think the SIGs will accomplish good, but not because of the staff changes. They’ll help us improve schools because they finally provide adequate funding for people to come in, assess needs, and actually address them.  Despite them? I’m not sure. In some cases, we’ll have the cover to remove senior but no-longer effective staff. And in others, we’ll have to move teachers who would be vastly more effective with the added resources the SIGs will bring. In the end, I don’t think we’ll ever know if the staff change portion of the SIGs was the reason for any improvements we might see.

3.  Do you think the SIGs will have lasting effects if/when the money runs out?

RN:  That’s a great question and I have huge doubts. Clearly additional PD will have a lasting effect on staff who remain at the schools receiving SIG grants (assuming they remain).  But a big part of our SIG strategy is bringing in coordination and support for all the myriad services available for students. Once that coordination and support is gone, there will still be students with the need for these services. Won’t we be right back where we started? That’s the big question that hasn’t been answered.

4.  Can there be school-only solutions to urban education challenges?

RN:  I don’t think it’s realistic to say that schools by themselves can solve all the problems that students bring with them when they enter the classroom. At the same time we need to be ever-vigilant that we are not using those problems as an excuse to do or expect less of our students. As an advocate for students with special needs, sometimes I am taken aback when educators tell me—with all earnestness and the best of intentions—“my students can’t do that!” I think we need to find another way of judging student aptitude that leaves out “can’t” in favor of “hmm, how can I help my student achieve his/her version of that skill?”

But yes, I’m a big fan of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which seeks to get policymakers to acknowledge that poverty, violence, and lack of access to adequate health care (including mental health) are all stressors that affect kids’ educations outside of schools.

5.  Five to ten years from now, do you think we’ll have made progress in education reform and the way the state and federal government run the show?

RN:  I seriously hope so. Right now, from my vantage point, it seems like we’re careering from one proposed solution to another, without pausing to see the results of the last solution before moving on to the next.

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