First Person

Commentary: Turnaround lessons from a pilot program

Robert Reichardt, the former director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs, is president of R-Squared Research, LLC, a local research firm.

This week, the Denver Post ran a three-part series on the federal school improvement grants (SIG) being used to turnaround some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools.  This article highlights many of the challenges faced in implementing these turnaround efforts, but offers little guidance to practitioners and policymakers on how to do this work well.

There are lessons to be learned from prior efforts at the Colorado Department of Education and in districts.  I was part of a team of researchers from the School of Public Affairs and Augenblick, Palaich and Associates that evaluated the Pilot Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) grants program ran by CDE (our report can be found here).  This program can be seen as precursor to current SIG efforts and provides valuable insights for practitioners.

The CTAG pilot awarded grants to six small- to medium-sized districts to close persistent achievement gaps in their schools.  These districts were identified because of their large and persistent achievement gaps AND because of their perceived capacity to implement reforms. The report has 17 recommendations, but I want to highlight a few key themes.

  1. This is all about human capital. It takes capable people at all levels of the education system to do this work well.  Every organization in the CTAG work, CDE, consulting firms, districts, and schools ALL struggled to get and keep the people they needed to do this work well.  Leaders in every organization engaged in these efforts must focus on recruiting and retaining talent as a their first strategy.
  2. Professional services contract management is a new and very important skill for districts and the state to master.  The model of bringing in outside consultants for long-term engagements helping to reforming schools is a promising model, but to be successful schools, districts and the state must develop new skills in contract management. 

Schools that are struggling are doing so despite the best efforts of those working in the schools. Outside consultants bring valuable new knowledge and skills to the mix.  And outside experts provide political cover for leaders as they implement challenging reforms.  A longtime member of a community (e.g. principal, superintendent or board member) may not be able to push for a radical overhaul on her own, but an outside expert can take the heat for the hard decisions.

However, the relationship should be managed carefully. Needs change throughout the reform process, meaning a consultant who was very valuable in the first year of reform may not have the skills needed in the second year of reform. The contractual relationship between schools and consultants needs to be flexible.  A couple of ground-rules should be in place:

  • Everyone should know how much money is on the table for the contractual relationship AND what is being purchased for the money being spent.
  • Everyone should understand how success is being defined for the contractual relationship:
    • What are the performance goals for each year,
    • Who is ultimately responsible for meeting those goals, and
    • Who has the authority to make the changes to school staffing and operations that are necessary to have a good chance of reaching those goals?
  • The process for changing the contract with consultants should be clear. That means everyone understands:
    • Who has the authority to change (or terminate) the contract,
    • How the change process works, and
    • There is a regular schedule (every three to six months) for reviewing/revising the scope of work.
  • The constraints and time limits imposed by federal (or state) rules on the use of turnaround money must be clear. The complexity of federal regulations and the one-time nature of funds work can against the success of these projects.  So leadership needs to understand these constraints and have clear strategies to respond with local, more flexible funds, when necessary.

3. Communication is key.  School turnaround is about getting all the people in a school to try many new things. Leadership must constantly remind people how their daily efforts at improvement are connected to larger changes, and how the larger change effort is evolving as people learn what is working and what is not.

There are also a lot of things we don’t understand well. First and foremost is the roadmap for turning around schools.  Schools are made up of complex teams, each with different strengths and needs. Leaders need help prioritizing and focusing reform efforts.  If someone tells you they are doing it all at once…find another turnaround model.

Understanding this roadmap comes from experience. Colorado’s education community needs to grow this professional knowledge through forums and networks for sharing knowledge.  Equally important, researchers and evaluators need to examine these efforts to capture lessons learned.

Finally, we need to define success and set realistic expectations.  Many turnaround efforts are going to suffer from implementation dips in CSAP scores. These schools are not going to quickly become high performers.  Equally important, the hard work is not just turning around school, but maintaining good performance over the long run (e.g. see Bessemer).

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.