Scenes from a SIG seminar

For more than eight hours with about a 45-minute lunch break, a group of roughly 30 journalists gathered in Chicago on Saturday for a seminar on the federal School Improvement Grant program.

Seven Stockton Unified K-8 sites – Fremont, Harrison, Henry, Nightingale, Pittman, Roosevelt and Taylor – have been awarded $34.2 million over the next three years to implement reforms. The schools qualified for the funding because they are considered among the lowest-performing schools in the United States.

Saturday’s seminar – “School Turnarounds: Are SIG Dollars Making a Difference?” – was organized by the Education Writers Association. Many of the journalists at the event cover districts that already have been receiving the funding for a year or two.

Following is an attempt to distill eight hours of information into a post that will be manageable to read. What I learned Saturday also will help to inform our coverage of SUSD’s SIG schools going forward.

The first speaker was Professor Daniel Duke of the University of Virginia. He started by citing a recent United States Department of Education report suggesting SIG seems to be making a difference.

Duke said the SIG program has many external providers seeing dollar signs – a not-unexpected outcome for a $4.6-billion program. “We’ve had a lot of people competing for the money,” Duke said.

He also said very few states are tracking how the money is used, and cited a recent report in the Denver Post, which found that 35 percent of Colorado’s SIG money is going to outside firms. He said the Post reported that “some of the firms are getting a lot of the money for doing very little.” It’s worth noting here that SUSD’s outside partners in its nascent SIG project are WestEd and Action Learning Systems.

Duke said that various constituencies have numerous explanations for low-performing schools: poverty, cultural differences, negative peer influence, poor parenting, unqualified teachers, lack of leadership and discriminatory school policies.

Duke said, “You need to find out who is winning the debate about why schools are low performing,” because whoever wins that debate controls what remedies are selected.

Surveys conducted in Virginia show that principals believe the biggest problems at low-performing schools are inadequate personnel, ineffective instruction and lack of data. But teachers surveyed pointed to low parent involvement, a lack of central-office support, ineffective interventions and a lack of community partnerships.

Principals suggested adopting new reading programs, removing or reassigning selected personnel, improving instruction, having more timely data on student progress and reducing discipline problems.

Teachers suggested finding ways to increase parent involvement, increase support from the district and selecting better interventions to help low-achieving students.

Duke said the keys to a successful turnaround are leadership, conveying a sense of urgency without seeming to panic, collaboration, inspiring trust but making sure everyone knows incompetence will not be tolerated, and engaging people in raising test scores without them thinking the students are just numbers.

He said some of the critical challenges are building consensus, encouraging teachers to abandon ineffective routines, establishing order while maintaining a caring learning environment; developing regular-education teachers’ capacity to provide individualized instruction; and keeping the focus on low-performing kids without neglecting high-achievers.

Duke said there are four phases of the turnaround process: organizational diagnosis, getting some “quick wins,” having some first-year achievement gains, and taking steps to sustain moment.

Of quick wins, Duke said, “It’s important to get some momentum early on. Quick wins can create the confidence to get beyond that demoralized environment.”

How to ensure first-year gains: teamwork, review data, more instructional time, targeted interventions, professional development and school improvement plans. But Duke noted that schools whose turnarounds do not succeed also often have put in place all of the above.

He said it’s interesting how rarely policymakers consider student motivation. He’s right. That is interesting. And of course, you wonder how often these policymakers actually set foot on low-performing campuses and really get to hear from students.

Duke said, “Is there anything motivating about preparing for tests all the time? Is that going to motivate the next generation?”

He also said, “There’s not a lot of evidence to prove that professional development makes a lot of difference.”

Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools (in North Carolina) were talked about a lot throughout the day. Duke said Charlotte made it a priority to get top employees into the lowest-performing schools. How? The Charlotte district made it an honor to be assigned to a low-performing school, he said, “just as in medicine it’s an honor to get the toughest cases.” In Charlotte, he also said principals could bring a team with them to their schools.

Duke said an effective tool is to create teams of teachers and administrators that have proven success in school turnarounds and moving them from school to school as needed.

He said regular-education teachers need some of the training that special-education teachers get – the training to individualize instruction.

And Duke concluded by noting that the big question for SIG will be sustainability. In SUSD, of course, the money will run out after the 2014-15 school year. SUSD talks about getting corporate and foundation support after the SIG funds are expended.

Duke said funding sustainability “requires political action by local state legislators. If you can demonstrate progress, I would put the pressure on them to provide more funding.”

Obviously, Duke has not been in California recently.

After Duke, we heard from Jason Snyder of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of School Turnaround, and Timothy Knowles, who is the director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

Snyder provided data. The U.S. is 16th in the world in college attainment. Less than 15 percent of the high schools in the country produce half of the nation’s 1.2 million dropouts.

He said SIG is an unprecedented financial push – to the tune of $5 billion – aimed at schools that historically have been neglected.

Nearly half of the SIG schools in the first cohort were high schools, even though high schools represent only 20 percent of all schools.

SIG grants require implementation of one of four models. A quick review of these models from the USDOE website:

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.

Snyder said three of every four schools in SIG has opted for the transformation model. In SUSD, two schools will use the restart model (Nightingale and Pittman), four are using transformation (Fremont, Harrison, Henry and Roosevelt) and one is using turnaround (Taylor). You can view SUSD’s application here.

Of the 700 first-year SIG schools, Snyder said, one-quarter showed increased math gains, and one-fifth showed increased reading gains. Snyder said SIG could be an “accelerant” to conditions already in place, or it could be making a difference.

Snyder admitted, “This isn’t going to work at every single place. It’s just not going to happen. Some of them are not going to work out.”

He said the USDOE wants to see improved student outcomes within three years, and at schools where those outcomes are not seen, the determination is likely to be that those schools have not altered their trajectories.

Tim Knowles was something of a sound-bite machine. Here are some quotes:

“We’ve been doing this in various iterations for some time and we’ve not met with a great deal of success historically.”

“So what’s going to be different? How is this time different? Is it different?”

“The schools that were turned around in Chicago went from the bottom and closed the gap by half in reading and two-thirds in math.”

“The students were the same. One of the critiques of turnaround schools is they are cherry-picking kids. It turns out they’re not.”

“There hasn’t been significant improvement in high schools.”

Knowles said there are five key areas schools trying to turn themselves around need to focus on: instruction, leadership, parent engagement, the engagement of the teachers in the turnaround process, and the learning climate of the school.

He said, “If you do three of those five things … you’re 10 times more likely to make substantial improvement and 30 times less likely to stagnate.”

Snyder said, “There are going to be some who are very courageous and make changes. And there are going to be some who are just going to go through the motions. This is about putting in place the conditions for where teachers want to go to teach and students want to go to learn.”

Knowles said it’s important to determine what exactly represents success. I think the point here was that growth ought to be celebrated rather than setting unrealistic targets of complete success for every student.

Knowles: “Calibrating our expectations is a really important thing for us to do.”

Snyder: “I agree, and I don’t think we have a strong sense of what that calibration is, yet.

Knowles: “The really broken schools are most likely to be impervious to change and most likely to take the path of least resistance.”

Next up, Sarah Yatsko of the Center on Reinventing Public Education spoke about SIG implementation in the state of Washington. Yatsko said the infusion of funds provides “a real opportunity for researchers to see what happens when you take all the obstacles away.”

She said school efforts re: SIG tend to fall into three categories: “kitchen sink” (trying to do too many things), “scattershot” (implementing changes with no rationale for those specific changes) and “laser focus.”

Laser focus is the effective approach, and means that a district or school creates high expectations, orderliness, has everyone believing in the mission, strategically uses resources, has an obsession with data and improvement, provides intensive coaching for struggling teachers and accepts no excuse for failure to educate students.

She said her organization’s study found that districts should create a district turnaround office with a hotline for the schools; create a climate of high urgency for change; provide assistance with data; aggressively search for talent and create incentives for employees.

She said states should worry less about grant compliance and more about providing support; communicate a sense of urgency and high expectations; establish a state turnaround office; and help cultivate a provider marketplace.

Following Yatsko, it was on to a panel discussion of charter schools. Our panelists: Ursula Wright of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; Matt Troha, principal of Mastery Charter Schools Thomas Campus in Philadelphia; Margaret Raymond of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, and Western Michigan University Professor Gary Miron.

Raymond said in traditional schools that are failing, lots of “excuses” are made. “In the charter school world, that is not happening … they own the responsibility of what they have control over and they try to maximize it.”

Miron: “Charter schools can work. That’s the good news. But more often than not, they’re not working.”

The original intent of charter schools was to create new, innovative schools in communities. It’s evolved, Miron said, to the point where perhaps they should be called “corporate schools or franchise schools.” Thirty-five percent are run by private entities. “That wasn’t what was envisioned in the ‘90s. These were going to be locally run schools.”

“Something we almost never hear anymore is about charter schools being innovative. On the whole we see today more of the cookie-cutter models, focusing on standardized assessments and teaching to the test.”

He said there is very high teacher attrition in charter schools, which keep their curricula intact by using scripted instruction.

Ursula Wright said very few charter schools have engaged in the work of turnarounds but when they do they tend to succeed.

Matt Troha said his organization’s work is to turn around schools. Mastery operates 12 schools, 10 of which were restarts.

He said these schools have the students and the same buildings. “We changed the adults.” He said test scores have risen 40 percentage points.

“We are working in failing schools dealing with generational poverty … lots of our kids are on IEPs.” And he said those IEPs often are for much more than speech issues.

“Charters play a role because we’re doing what works for our students and our communities. It comes down to great teachers and doing what works. Setting ambitious goals, measuring what works without a lot of the red tape.

Troha: “There are very few requirements we put on families but we work our butts off to get them involved. We try very hard to not make parental involvement be a barrier to coming to our school.”

Raymond: “Choice is an extremely important part of the turnaround strategy. What I don’t know is, are we seeing the death spiral of the high school model? I don’t know if the high school model as we have it today works.”

Before lunch, we heard from William Guenther of Mass Insight, a major player in education reform in Massachusetts.

“It takes a long time to get traction,” he said of turnaround efforts.” And when the traction is achieved,

“The question is whether you can sustain those gains.”

Guenther: “In high-poverty areas, schools are the first line of defense against unemployment.

Some “failed strategies” cited by Guenther include: central office to the rescue, ex-administrators as coaches in failing schools, setting up teams of retired administrators and sending them to failing schools.

Guenther: The key question: are the states and is the federal government being bold in its approaches or is it simply doing more of the same?

Guenther: Are organizations partnering with districts required to sign 3-5 year performance contracts with accountability for student achievement?

Guenther: Is a partner there five days a week or is it a supporting partner providing professional development and coaching?

Guenther: He said districts should have a “a high school-feeder cluster strategy with its SIG funds” rather than just giving grants to individual schools?

Guenther said school boards often are a huge problem. The average tenure of superintendents is three years in Massachusetts. Part of the problem is school boards.

Guenther: More than half of the funding should go to staffing.

Following a sumptuous lunch, we entered the homestretch, getting union perspectives of Ellen Holmes of NEA and Judy Hale of AFT.

Holmes: “There are good things happening in our schools. Part of our goal is to elevate these good things.”

Holmes discussed NEA’s priority schools program, which includes SUSD’s very own Roosevelt Elementary.

She spoke about places where districts and unions are collaborating, such as at a high school in Oregon that serves teen moms, homeless students, adjudicated kids.

Holmes said of teacher evaluations: “We want to be evaluated. We do struggle with top-down imposed systems our members don’t have a voice in.”

Judy Hale said AFT is focusing on a struggling West Virginia district and hopes “to build a model to be replicated in rural America.”

Hale said the hardest thing to achieve is changing the culture of a community.

After Hale, we heard from Marisa de la Torre of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

She said turning around low-performing schools is “more a process than an event and that most successful turnarounds focus on to building the organizational strength of the schools.

A second panel discussion gave a Chicago perspective. The panel: Jennifer Husbands of the Academy for Urban School Leadership; Don Fraynd, turnaround officer for Chicago Public Schools; Jesse Sharkey, VP of the Chicago Teachers Association; and Xian Barrett, a Chicago teacher and author.

Fraynd said the SIG program is “a huge deal and it’s shining a light on a group of schools that have never had a light shined on them. The communities in which the lowest 5 percent of schools reside are largely voiceless. Nobody knows how to do this. This is a huge experience. The SIG funds have powered a lot of research and development. This is putting our best thinking into a place it’s never been before.”

Fraynd said he dealt with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan when Duncan was in Chicago. Fraynd was a principal. He said he told Duncan he needed a four- to six-year commitment and wanted “one coherent set of expectations, and to have our political back against controversy.”

Husbands said: “I believe we have shown it is possible. I believe low-performing schools can be turned around in a way that puts kids on a different trajectory. Parents who vehemently oppose the turnaround before it happens become some of the biggest supporters after it happens.”

Husbands said it sometimes helps to replace teachers not because they are “bad teachers” but because “the organizational culture of a school is broken.” “Whatever it is, we believe places need to be radically re-cultured.”

Sharkey said the educational debate in the U.S. is “polluted by quick fixes and salvation narratives. I don’t think the idea of transforming schools should be driven by fear.”

Barrett said if communities are voiceless, it has “a lot to do with our society choosing not to hear voices.”   Barrett supports a “democratic, community based school improvement effort.” He said in 33 schools in Chicago, 95 percent or more of the students are poor yet are posting above-average scores. “These are schools that reach heights many middle-income schools would like to reach.”  “They’ve done it be elevating the voices of the people in the community.”

Husbands said of turnaround efforts, “There’s no silver bullet. It needs to be a combination of different strategies that work well.”

Barrett said teachers are frustrated by the heavy emphasis on testing data. “The reason we get so many teachers saying, ‘Screw the data,’ is because we’ve been screwed by the data so many times. The solution is not no data. The solution is we cut deeper.”

We’ll close with a discussion by Bay Area teacher/blogger Anthony Cody and Massachusetts teacher Lisa Goncalves Lavin.

Here are some quotes:

Cody: “Teacher turnover affects student achievement. When there’s turnover, teachers turn inward to their classrooms.” He said the turnover has a chilling effect on the interaction between teachers, the willingness of teachers to collaborate and work together and share ideas.

Cody choked up when he spoke about No Child Left Behind. “We felt like we were fighting against our own government trying to stabilize the school.”

Cody: “If we want to turn over large numbers of teachers, policies are working well. If we want to sustain improvement, policies hurting.”

Cody said teacher experience matters. “The idea that novices coming in will absorb essential tools for success in SIG schools is ‘really misguided.’ ”

Cody: “I would suggest there are lousy schools with high test scores and very good schools with bad test scores.”

Cody: “If we shouldn’t teach to the test, then don’t measure by success on tests or judge teachers based on test scores.”

Cody: “What is the real evidence of learning beyond test scores? We need other tools.”

Cody: “We have to be really cognizant of the toll that turnover takes on schools. There are Oakland middle schools where 60, 70 percent of the staff is new.” (Sounds like Stockton)

Cody” “What would happen if we assumed we might get somewhere by supporting everyone and retaining everyone?”

Lisa Goncalves Lavin, a first-grade teacher in Boston, is on a “Turnaround Teacher Team.” She said,

“Nothing prepares you for urban education. It is difficult.”

Lavin said data, professional development, partners in the turnaround efforts and families are the key priorities. Teachers get 90 minutes a week of collaboration time.

Lavin: The partners in the schools provide in-class interventions and much help with attendance initiatives.

Lavin echoed something one of the other speakers said earlier. She said in year one, there was an angry parent. “By the end of the year, she was volunteering. She saw a change in the culture and in her child’s growth in learning.”

Lavin said she makes home visits and gets to learn more about students’ lives and challenges. Stockton Unified’s SIG plans call for home visits.

Cody: “We need to make the SIG schools sustainable places where teachers can survive and thrive. Collaborative practices would improve some teachers, and the really bad ones would feel uncomfortable and leave.”

Thanks for reading, especially if you made it all the way to the end.

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