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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.