Hurricanes, Waivers, and 5% Solutions

December 5, 2012 at 4:30 PM Leave a comment

Today’s solutions are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s problems…that look a lot like yesteryear. Left to their own momentum, many of the ideas currently trending in education networks will lead to churning at the bottom, separate but not nearly equal public education, and loss of class mobility for all but minority superstars…who probably could have made it on their own merit.

Sometimes management talent is best reflected in unnatural acts of leadership when problems assume the guise of the obvious. Clear vision and grit are needed to save the day when momentum builds around flawed ideas. Otherwise, we are quite likely to preserve the status quo or worse, even as we flatter ourselves as seasoned change agents for the good.

Consider some of the current thinking in education policy…

  • The system is too big to fix…we need to focus on the bottom 5%
  • Katrina forced NOLA schools to be reinvented…let’s blow through [insert urban district] like a force of nature and just take out the weakest structures.
  • Good schools are getting failing grades…NCLB must be broken.

Who is going to tell us if we are wrong?

Revival of an old trick…concentrating resources in the lowest performing schools

Solutions have to start somewhere, so why not at the bottom? What could be wrong with that? Actually, it has long been the habit of school districts to focus on underperforming schools. They throw scarce resources at the worst schools, observe some good results, celebrate victory…and myopically pull the resources out from under the schools with fledgling programs for success. Because there is a new school at the bottom and resources need to be redeployed to save it. That is the type of churning that got us where we are today.

Maybe the problem is that we do not have a good way to get access to existing resources. Special money for special problems gets spun cyclically around the anointed problem children in the system, but we manage the vast majority of education dollars in a black box of regulatory accounting. About 59% of our money goes to “instruction,” and many districts are trying to decentralize more of that and create flexibility for school leaders. However, there is no standard for tracking what’s in that pool of money, nor do we have the information to assess the other 41% beyond regulatory compliance with federal spending policies. We need to build data and dollars around the mission of educating all children.

Hurricane treatment of chaotic divisions within urban school systems

New Orleans may have had some of the worst schools in the nation prior to Hurricane Katrina. The need to rapidly replace the entire infrastructure in the troubled 9th Ward created an opportunity to incubate charter school notions in the real world. The jury is still out on this experiment, but early successes have turned NOLA charters into the new magic pill.

Now DC schools are under the microscope, and Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews is suggesting the emergence of a NOLA-like mixed Charter-District plan that could be extended to DC and other urban areas. This so-called hurricane treatment generates disruptive overhauling of whole regions of a troubled school district, essentially abandoning failure mills and replacing them with presumptively successful charters. Meanwhile, district schools in affluent neighborhoods would be left alone.

The long-term problem is systemic. The hurricane strategy sets up parallel school systems that may not ultimately deliver equity in education. And the better schools that are spared the metaphorical hurricane are no longer urgently encouraged to be inclusive of children whose parents wish to opt out of replacement schools. Nor are they as apt to worry about marginalizing their own special populations, even to the point of sending some of them back into the storm.

Welcome back Separate-but-[not] Equal? No way! A better asset-based solution would keep whatever strong elements existed within turnaround schools. An empowered administrator would set up a team balanced with instructional leadership and parent representation. Teachers would be responsive to both, and they would be involved in self-assessment, goal-setting, and review annually. Every member of the team must count. This is a full-on marathon, not a sprint for the most fleet-footed favorites.

If schools were considered too far gone to recover, a creative solution would be to reorganize and realign elementary schools. Two cohorts of preK-8 students could be combined, matching pairs of high and low-performing schools. The blended schools would then be reorganized into separate preK-3 and grade 4-8 schools. The staff at each school would be collectively accountable for their respective grade 3 or grade 8 final benchmarks. Intensive professional development in the appropriate age cluster would be required for each school’s staff.

NCLB waivers that enable benign neglect in elite schools

NCLB is not as broken as some would have you believe. Poor grades for subgroup failures at elite schools have been cited as a hallmark of NCLB’s shortcomings. In fact, the inclusiveness of the best schools is an important feature of NCLB that supports families trying to give their children access to a brighter future. Many less affluent families moving to towns with better schools have found their children marginalized in special programs and falling further behind their peers in the new schools.

With waivers in place, states are less likely to notice as “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations” continues to be tolerated in middle and upper class communities. Parents can move to a better place, but their children still may be denied an educational springboard to class mobility.

The real solution is to keep the rigor of subgroup analysis within NCLB. Ethnic or income-based bias within seemingly good schools is not good enough. Districts must be accountable for all of their students. Painful self-assessment and corrective action is not just for big city schools. Creation of a success cycle for underserved populations within any district must be a priority.


Entry filed under: ESEA-NCLB.

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