de Blasio’s School Renewal Plan: Warmed Over Ineffective Turnaround Plans or Well Thought Out Plans Phased-In With Faculty Involvement?

Almost a year to the day after his election Mayor de Blasio, in a major address, rolled out his long awaited education plan. As the spring morphed into summer and the summer into the fall the whispers got louder – What’s happening? What’s the plan for “struggling” schools? If he’s not going to close schools, how is he going to help schools? In a lengthy address the mayor mused about his experiences as a student and a parent and described his plans.

The plan below:

Aggressive Supports and Reforms for 94 Low-Performing Schools

Each school-specific School Renewal Plan will outline the school’s approach to transforming into a Community School and offering extended time, as well as feature the following supports and reforms:
• Additional resources, such as academic intervention specialists, guidance counselors, social workers, small group instruction and individualized plans to meet the academic and emotional needs of every student
• Extensive professional learning and development for school staff, including intensive coaching for principals
• Enhanced oversight from superintendents who all recently completed a rigorous interview process
• Frequent visits from DOE trained staff to provide feedback and closely monitor progress

Additional targeted supports tailored to each school, based on its individual needs, may include:
• Modified curriculum to maximize school improvement
• New master and model teachers who can share their craft with other educators at the school
• Operational support, enabling principals to focus on supporting their teachers to ensure rigorous classroom instruction
• Additional resources for school safety and social service programs designed to address the specific identified needs of the student population

The goals for the coming years are:
• 2014–2015
o Each school must develop and put in place a School Renewal Plan for transformation by Spring 2015
• 2015–2016
o Each school must meet concrete milestones defined in its School Renewal Plan and improve on targeted elements of the capacity framework, as identified in the needs assessment
o Each school must demonstrate measurable improvement in attendance and teacher retention
• 2016–2017
o Each school must demonstrate significant improvement in academic achievement
o Each school must demonstrate continued improvement on targeted elements of the capacity framework

For some the plan looks like warmed-over State Incentive Grants (SIG) that the feds have been distributing for years. The grants fit into parameters set by the state and the details of the grant are created by the school district; principals have peripheral input and staff no input. Programs imposed from central rarely change classroom practice.

Principles of Organizational Change:
• Participation reduces resistance
• Change is perceived as punishment

Some of the schools on the list have been flirting with school closures for decades, superintendents, regional superintendents, network leaders, etc., have been “supporting” schools year after year, how will the de Blasio Renewal Plan differ from years of “new initiatives?”

If instructional practice from 9 – 3, during the regular school day has not been effective what makes you think instruction from 3 – 4 will be effective?

Andy Smarick in Education Next,
in a critical essay about school turnaround writes,

… school turnaround efforts have consistently fallen far short of hopes and expectations. Quite simply, turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America’s troubled urban school systems…

Looking back on the history of school turnaround efforts, the first and most important lesson is the “Law of Incessant Inertia.” Once persistently low performing, the majority of schools will remain low performing despite being acted upon in innumerable ways.

The second important lesson is the “Law of Ongoing Ignorance.” Despite years of experience and great expenditures of time, money, and energy, we still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent. A review published in January 2003 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation of more than 100 books, articles, and briefs on turnaround efforts concluded, “There is, at present, no strong evidence that any particular intervention type works most of the time or in most places.”

Is the School Renewal Plan spending $150 million and pushing the problem three years down the road? On the other hand school closings sacrificed students in the phase-out schools, two or three years of staff moving on and deteriorating services. Over 1,000 teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool rotating from school to school at a cost of tens of millions. The Renewal Plan will involve staffs in the creation of school specific plans and the master teachers and coaches and mentors will work with school staffs. Schools will have “ownership” of the process, yes; schools plans must operate within the parameters of the Renewal Plan (extended school days, etc.). Schools will have three years to recreate their own schools in a transparent process. If schools fail to show adequate progress, in a transparent process, schools will be closed or staff changed. it is difficult to object to school closing at the end of a process in which school staffs participated in the process.

School closings vigorously resisted by schools, communities and elected or schools that improve, or not, with the total involvement of the schools and the community.

There are three keys: leadership, leadership and leadership.

The Bloomberg era leadership programs have had mixed results. An NYU study a few years ago showed no significant differences among Leadership Academy and traditional program principals. Anecdotally teachers report young Leadership graduates do not exhibit leadership qualities. To claim, as some reformers claim that experience does not matter is deeply flawed. Learning is lifelong, experience matters.

Schools blocks apart: one school chaotic, fights, suspensions, and mediocre instruction, the other orderly, effective instruction, the “feeling” that kids and teachers want to succeed, and sometimes, the same stark differences in schools in the same building.

Can current principals in struggling schools become effective school leaders?

Can school staffs become reflective, collaborative teams?

We anxiously await the implementation details of the Renewal Plan.

I used to wonder why so many secondary school principals had been coaches, and so few English and History teachers.

Have you ever watched a coach work with his/her team during a practice? Have you watched a coach teach a skill?

Description, demonstration, walk through, correction, slow practice, correction, repetition, game speed practice, review, correction … a step by step teaching of a skill with frequent “checks for understanding.” Mike Schmoker, in Focus, describes the same practice in classroom instruction: frequent checks for understanding.

I watched a U-tube of a high school basketball coach, a gymnasium filled with kids, there was less than a second left, an out-of-bounds play, the coach signaled a play, the player under the basket nodded, flashed the signal – the out-of-bounds pass was a lob to the rim and one player came around a screen and tipped the pass at the buzzer for a win. In in a tense situation players performed, coaching worked, kids learned and performed.

Coaches, principals and teachers can teach kids and can instill confidence in students. The de Blasio School Renewal Plan can make a difference with the proper leadership at the school level.

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2 responses to “de Blasio’s School Renewal Plan: Warmed Over Ineffective Turnaround Plans or Well Thought Out Plans Phased-In With Faculty Involvement?

  1. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley have reported that in England a process that has the acronym RATLS pairs schools to help one another. Apparently even two schools not doing well both improve. Shirley told me of similar results in another European country (I recall Germany, perhaps not). I am no believer in one magic bullet, but this seems to encourage a process of dialog and reflection that leads to improvement.

    We should also be concerned when the definition of improved or good is the test score, a less than inadequate measure. Worse, with is as the definition, and sanctions attached, the schools become test prep programs that may boost scores but not sustainable learning (see recent reports on KIPP grads who don’t succeed in college, versus the NY Performance Standards Consortium students who do).

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  2. Eric Nadelstern

    The Mayor’s proposal for failing schools is fraught with problems for the following seven reasons:

    – Throwing money at failed school has been tried time and time again with no success.

    – The rules, roles and relationships that have developed in failed schools preclude asking the teachers and administrators responsible for the failure in the first place to reinvent themselves.

    – Rewarding failure invariably penalizes success. Doing so reinforces the wrong kinds of behaviors on the part of principals, teachers and students.

    – If the Mayor can find an additional $150,000,000, these resources would be better spent supporting and replicating successful schools.

    – The schools least able to manage themselves are not those most able to successfully manage additional social services for students and their families.

    – Focusing schools on the communities they are situated within simply reinforces the segregation by race and class that is reflected in neighborhoods in New York City.

    – Despite successive MDRC match group studies showing significant gains in graduation rates in general, and college enrollment for African American males, the Mayor consistently refuses to consider closing failed schools and replacing them with new, small, more successful ones.

    I feel that history, data and common sense all point to why the Mayor should abandone this approach. However, for the sake of our children, I can only hope that I’m proven wrong.

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