Yelling “Fire”

February 5th, 2010

Category: News

Dear Friends,

Turning around low performing schools is finally getting some traction, but this is going to be a steep learning curve. As one of my board members said last week, “Those buildings have been burning for years, but no one’s been yelling, ‘Fire.’” The question is, “Do we know how to put it out?” Sure, we know we need wholesale versus piecemeal change, but how we manage this challenge at a state level with quality is going to be a big lift.

As an organization committed to yelling “Fire” in our state, Rodel is looking forward to learning from the many other states that have been, or soon will be, working to dampen the flames. Earlier this week, we were excited to see that Mass Insight announced its “Partnership Zone” initiative with Delaware and five other states—Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New York. The initiative will set a policy and support framework for school turnarounds. (If you want local color, here’s the front page story our local paper, The News Journal, and this EdWeek blog provides a straightforward assessment of how Delaware’s strategy may differ from others, namely that the Secretary of Education has a substantial role in making sure this gets done right.)

I’m optimistic about the direction, but this is largely new territory for Delaware and most states. While there have been isolated reconstitution efforts in the past, until recently the only places from which we could learn about taking turnarounds to scale were charter school authorizers (usually serving 5% or less of a given student population) and big districts – like New Orleans and Chicago. By and large, the notion of states potentially shutting down and reopening public schools is very new, and – drawing from my past experience as a charter authorizer in Massachusetts – doing so quickly and within the same, likely bruised communities, is a doable, yet very tall, order.

By my team’s unofficial count there are now 10 states – not just districts – that have committed through legislation, regulation, or formal partnerships to wrestle with “turnarounds.” CA, CO, LA, MA, MI, MS, TN and DE all recently passed legislation or regulations on this issue, and NY and IL are now engaging in this work through the Mass Insight partnership. Our presumption is that the other 31 states/jurisdictions that applied for RTTT last month are going to be moving forward on this as well, signaling a massive policy shift for state education agencies that are largely under-resourced.

Anything worth doing usually requires some pain and some sweat. This work will entail incredibly tough political battles (the current push back in NY, as one example), and the science of how to do this is far from certain. What is the end game for schools in recovery school districts that improve? Do they return to their old districts or are we looking to recreate new, “mega” districts? How will this work in rural schools where it’s tough to find new staff? Can this be done at scale within a traditional collective bargaining environment? How can we do this fast (and well) to minimize the disruptions in communities often facing multiple challenges? How can we sustain the deeper investments needed to move these schools forward after the stimulus dries up? Can we push harder on solutions such as weighted student funding?

There’s a lot to learn, so as you come across strong new policies or advocacy strategies, please keep me in mind and feel free to use Rodel’s blog to share ideas about where states are getting this right.

Paul Herdman



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