A Look at the Future: Is New York State Chasing Obama Dollars or Seriously and Collaboratively Planning Better Schools?

Under the radar the US Department of Education (USDOE) will announce $3.5 billion in formula-driven State Incentive Grants (SIG) in mid-March. States submitted applications in early February, and, New York State partnered with six other states within the Mass Insight turnaround strategy.
The application for SIG grants “suggests” that
You may also wish to launch or expand efforts to recruit or develop principals and other staff to serve in your State’s persistently lowest-achieving schools and to identify, screen, and attract Education Management Organizations and Charter Management Organizations willing to work with LEAs to implement the “restart” model in those schools.  In addition, your State may allocate some of the funds to LEAs with … schools to support planning for implementation of selected school intervention models if and when they receive a grant under the SIG program.  An LEA might, for example, use the funds to review student achievement data; evaluate current policies and practices that support or impede reform; assess the strengths and weaknesses of school leaders, teachers, and staff; recruit and train effective principals capable of implementing one of the school intervention models; or identify and screen outside partners.
The USDOE language translates into:
* great teachers, great principals (replace the current principal and 50% of the staff)
* increase rewards (bonuses for teachers and principals)
* longer school day, longer school year
* adopt common standards
* rich data systems (utilize data to drive instructional practice and teacher assessment)
* free schools of administrative/teacher contractual constraints
While this appears to be the Joel Klein philosophy in reality it is an approach, in one iteration or another, that can be found in states across the nation. Arne Duncan, at the National Governor’s Association laid out his plans in considerable detail ( see here, it’s an hour and a half, but eye-opening!)
Dollars, dollars, dollars, as states struggle for dollars the lure of Arne’s dollar is hypnotic.
The Race to the Top (RttT), round 1, six winners, will be announced in April, round 2 is due June 1 with winners announced in September and a round 3 is part of the FY 10-11 budget proposal.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), fma, No Child Left Behind, reauthorization discussions have begun, and, early proposals call for substantial changes in the current law.  Rather than drive dollars to states and communities by formula Duncan wants to “reward successful practices.” Will Congress approve a bill that creates winners and losers? 
For a look into the future in New York State take some time to read the Mass Insight description of “turnaround” efforts in specific states and districts here.
The missing footnote is that these dramatic changes are targeting urban inner city schools. In a new study
… the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that more than 1.7 million American children attend what we’ve dubbed — “private” public schools that serve virtually no poor students.* In some metropolitan areas, as many as one in six public-school students — and one in four white youngsters — of which the U.S. has about 2,800.
In spite of the stimulus dollars school districts are facing drastic cuts, thousands of teacher layoffs in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The lure of federal dollars has resulted in threats: in Rhode Island, extend the school day for no pay, or else. When the teachers said “let’s negotiate,” the district closed the school, and, laid off the staff.
What is so distressing is that the laboratory experiment on which these policies are based, the Chicago Public Schools, has been a failure. The twenty year old Chicago Consortium on School Research, in an October, 2009 Report on the impact of school closings is unkind.
This report reveals that eight in 10 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students displaced by school closings transferred to schools ranking in the bottom half of system schools on standardized tests. However, because most displaced students transferred from one low-performing school to another, the move did not, on average, significantly affect student achievement.
The Mass Insight website seems to see teacher unions as obstructionist, it ignores that teacher contracts are mutually negotiated, the Mass Insight model conflicts with union contract clauses. Why should unions waive clauses unless they are part of the process and they are convinced that the “new” proposal will produce better schools?
The next New York State Board of Regents meeting will address the Commissioner Steiner’s approach to school turnaround. I hope the Regents ask the key questions.
Parents and teachers must be part of the process at an early and meaningful stage: doing it to us instead of with us dooms plans.  The chase for Obama/Duncan dollars must not drive policy. 
Evidence and collaboration should drive policy.

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