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Chat: Using Stimulus Aid to Turn Around Low-Achieving Schools

Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009, 2 p.m. Eastern time

Turning around the nation’s lowest-achieving schools is a top priority for President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. To that end, $3 billion in Title I school improvement funding has been set aside for that purpose, and states are being urged to develop turnaround plans as part of their applications for the $4 billion Race to the Top Fund. Our guests explored promising strategies for using that money to achieve maximum impact.

Related Story:

  • Stimulus Rules on 'Turnarounds' Shift (December 2, 2009)
  • Guests:
    Robert Balfanz, a co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center and a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore

    Scott Gordon, Chief Executive Officer for Mastery Charter Schools, a charter-management organization based in Philadelphia

    Lesli A. Maxwell, staff writer, Education Week, moderated this chat.


    Note: No special equipment other than Internet access is needed to participate in any of our text-based chats. Participants may begin submitting questions 30 minutes before a chat starts.

     Live Chat: Using Stimulus Aid to Turn Around Low-Achieving Schools(12/10/2009) 
    10:28
    Edweek Producer: Jennifer: 
    Today's Chat, Using Stimulus Aid to Turn Around Low-Achieving Schools, is open for questions. Please start submitting them now.

    The chat itself will begin at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Thanks for joining us!
    Thursday December 10, 2009 10:28 Edweek Producer: Jennifer
    2:00
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Hello everyone and welcome to our chat today on school turnarounds. I'm Lesli Maxwell, a reporter for Education Week and I'll be your moderator. We have two great guests today. Robert Balfanz is a co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center and a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Scott Gordon is the CEO of Master Charter Schools in Philadelphia. Before we get to our questions, I'll ask Robert and Scott to tell us a little more about themselves and their organizations.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:00 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:02
    robert balfanz: 
    I am the Co-Director of the Everyone Graduates Center dedicated to providing the analytics, tools and models, and capacity building needed to schools, districts, and states to enable all students to graduate college and career ready, Robert Balfanz
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:02 robert balfanz
    2:02
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    Hello, I am the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools in Philly. We operate four 7-12 schools, three of which were turnarounds of struggling school district schools. We have closed the achievement gap in all three schools at the middle school grades.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:02 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:03
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Great. Let's start with our first question from Dee who is asking how stimulus money can be used to improve low performing schools
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:03 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:03
    [Comment From Dee DixonDee Dixon: ] 
    There is gross disparity in teacher certification, instructinal curriculum and standards, equipment, facilities ans resources in Chicago neighborhood schools, keeping in mind that Chicago has a history of racial and socio economic segregation that are linked. ow will stimulus funds improve the qualityof historically low performing schools?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:03 Dee Dixon
    2:03
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, you can answer that one.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:03 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:05
    robert balfanz: 
    One advance over prior federal efforts is the realization that some schools will need lots of funding to be transformed and turnaround and be able to meet their very high degree of educational challenge. So the regs says some schools will need up to a million dollars a year in additional funds to do this.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:05 robert balfanz
    2:05
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    We've got an interesting question from Pat who wants to know about the parental role in turning around schools. Scott, can you talk about how Mastery has included parents in its strategies for improving achievement?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:05 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:05
    [Comment From PAT THOMPSONPAT THOMPSON: ] 
    Parents are often the last one's to know that a school is performing badly. What role should they be given/play in tuening around low performing schools??
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:05 PAT THOMPSON
    2:07
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 

    Parents in the schools we turned around were previously not very engaged. The first step in engaging them was to change the culture of building -- from dangerous and chaotic to safe and welcoming. From there we focused on means of getting parents involved in academics and homework -- and then PTA like involvement.

    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:07 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:07
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Our next question comes from Stacey about teacher evaluations and performance pay in the turnaround context. Robert, can you take a crack at this one?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:07 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:07
    [Comment From StaceyStacey: ] 
    What role do teacher evaluations/performance pay play in turnaround plans?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:07 Stacey
    2:09
    robert balfanz: 
    I believe the regulations state that district must work with their teachers and principals to develop mutiple means to evaluate teachers including both student test score gains but also observations and artifacts which demonstrate good teaching. Then they also need to work collectively to find ways to reward strong performance.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:09 robert balfanz
    2:09
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, can you answer this question from Anne about using data?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:09 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:09
    [Comment From Anne JonesAnne Jones: ] 
    What are your views about using data to improve low-achieving schools? I have read that applications for funds with plans for data use will receive "points." What kinds of plans do you think are most effective?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:09 Anne Jones
    2:11
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 

    We use data in almost every aspect of the school's operation. We have end of the year goals for students and use interim assessments every 6 weeks to know if students are progressing towards those goals. We collect and analyze data on attendance, discipline, # of courses failed, etc. throughout the year so we can intervene approporiately.

    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:11 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:11
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, please answer this question from Bob who is on a school restructuring committee and is looking for information.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:11 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:11
    [Comment From BobBob: ] 
    On a school restructurig committe can you direct me to and good process to measuer school leadership and staff effectivness
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:11 Bob
    2:14
    robert balfanz: 
    This is challenging in practice, as these are multi-dimensional jobs. But you want to look at it from a couple of angles. Objective measures of improvement are students learning more, are they coming to school more often etc But also teacher and leader attitudes. Do they really believe all children can achieve and the effort required is worth it. Finally, do they work as a collective whole. One clear sign of when teachers and leaders are not working well together is that when you interview them they each blame the other
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:14 robert balfanz
    2:14
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, here's one for you to address from Stacey who is asking for evidence that charters are better able to turn around low performing schools.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:14 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:14
    [Comment From StaceyStacey: ] 
    What evidence is there that says charters can do a better job turning around low-performing schools?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:14 Stacey
    2:16
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    I dont' know to be honest. There are so few succesful turnarounds nationwide. However, Charters do have the ability to hire a new staff and create a new staff culture in a way that is much more difficult for traditional schools. Inded, 'd like to just highlight again the question on teacher pay and evaluation. I can't think of anything more important to school success than developing a comprehensive teacher talent development system -- clarity as to what good instruction is, clarity as to how instruction is evaluated, linking professional development and coaching to the instrucitonal standards that are evaluated, linking student results to teacher advancement, and linking pay an promotion to instructional quality,
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:16 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:17
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, a question for you from SJ about whether all the new federal money to do turnarounds will actually work.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:17 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:17
    [Comment From sjsj: ] 
    school/district officials have been trying to sell turnarounds as silver bullets for years. Is some extra money really going to change the equation--and the results--that much?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:17 sj
    2:19
    robert balfanz: 
    Its not the extra money that will do. Its rather, school/district officials take an analytic and comhrehensive approach, which additional funding can allow. Will they do a true needs assessment so they really understand the educational challenge the school faces and the resources it does or does not have to meet it. Will they develop a school design which is strong and robust enough to meet those challenges. Will they use the funds and regulations to enable schools to develop the capacity and will (or find teachers and principals who have it) to implement the design and then will the district and state ensure that the school is protected from turbulence so they can put the design in place and sustain it.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:19 robert balfanz
    2:20
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, here's a question from Mary Ann about charter school capacity to do this work.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:20 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:20
    [Comment From Mary AnnMary Ann: ] 
    What is the capacity of charter school operators to take on the job of turning around schools in the scheme of things? Would they be able to take on most schools in need of turnaround in the country or only a few here and there?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:20 Mary Ann
    2:22
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    I think we are at the very beginning of a long journey. No, there is no where near sufficient capacity at this point. That said, even a handful of successes would be revolutionary. Most of the schools that are targeted have been failures for years if not generations. Lets get started and see success and cacacity will expand. We havent succeeded as a nation in doing this work -- its time to get started.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:22 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:22
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, can you take this question from Michele about how to do turnarounds in rural areas?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:22 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:22
    [Comment From Michele McNeilMichele McNeil: ] 
    I've heard some rural superintendents complain that a lot of traditional turnaround models are geared toward urban districts. Do either of you know what turnaround strategies may work best in rural areas?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:22 Michele McNeil
    2:25
    robert balfanz: 
    The basics of successful turnaround are the same every where. You need to understand your educational challenges. How many students are below grade level in what subjects, in what grades, how many students do not attend school on a regular basis, how many are droping out. Then you need an educational design which meets those challenges-a research based extra help course in literacy for example, and you have to implement at needed scale so if 100 students need this, you need to provide for all not just half because you only have one teacher availble. Then the challenge is how to implement this design as quick as possible. Changing staff and principals can lead to a new culture we can expidite this, but if this option is not availble then one has to look to other means like coaching and tightly linked professionald development to instructional goals as Scott has mentioned.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:25 robert balfanz
    2:26
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, Adriese has a really good question about what turnaround strategies look like. Can you talk about Mastery's particular approach to turn around in the Philly schools?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:26 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:26
    [Comment From Adriese WilliamsAdriese Williams: ] 
    What are some concrete turnaround strategies?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:26 Adriese Williams
    2:29
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    That's a big question: A few quick thoughts:
    1) school culture strategy -- we created a very intentional college focused culture. We created a set of behavior expectations and were relentless in enforcing them. We created a postive culture system (trips, etc.) and introduced a restortative justice model. Most importantly -- we hired and trained staff that were to be on one page regarding school culture, student support and discpline.
    I can address academics and remediation if but its a longer answer.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:29 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:29
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, here's a perfect question for you from Joel who asks whether schools ought to look at the non-academic factors that impact student achievement.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:29 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:29
    [Comment From Joel PackerJoel Packer: ] 
    Should schools/districts also look at non-academic factors that might affect student achievement and work to address those?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:29 Joel Packer
    2:33
    robert balfanz: 
    Absolutely. Educational Challenge really has three parts-academic. student engagement-do student attend, behave and try hard, and non-academic out of school challegnes. In many high poverty environments the resilence students show in just coming to school every day is amazing. This does not say turnaround or high achievement can not be achieved it can. It just says we need to recognize the high poverty schools will need an extra layer of resources and smart strategies to deal with this. One way is to make sure they have whole school, targetted and intensive one on one support avaible for all students who need them, then use early waring systems to identify kids as soon as they fall off track. Diagnosis quickly is it an academic or non-academic issue or both and then have a range of supports at the scale and intensity needed.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:33 robert balfanz
    2:34
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, we are circling back around to the performance pay issue in a question from Sara who wonders if research really supports the idea.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:34 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:34
    [Comment From SaraSara: ] 
    Are you aware of the Report that evaluates Texas’s Governor’s Educator Excellence Grant (GEEG) program -the largest performance pay program in the nation. It has given out approximately $300 million over 3 years to teachers in 99 high-poverty schools. Among other findings, they found that the impact on student gains was “inconclusive…depending on the specification, the analysis indicates that GEEG has a weakly positive, negative or negligible effect on student achievement gains…” Given this report, do you feel the current push toward performance pay may not be the best solution?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:34 Sara
    2:39
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    I am not familar with that study, but I am familiar with many District attempts to marry performance to pay systems. Typically the systems are change at the margins, not a wholesale rethinking of talent development. I can comment on our experience. Linking pay to performance is very difficult -- it requires that the school actually know and define what good instruction is, have the means to evaluate it, the ability to support/coach teachers to attain it, and the ability to connect student data to instruction quality. It took us 6 years to do so -- and that was in a charter environment where we could each year fix what we screwed up the previous year. The results however are transformational. Good teachers stay and get promoted to be fantastic leaders. struggline teacher work to get support and improve. Truly weak teachers leave. Then culture shifts to be all about results.

    The rest of the world works on a system that pays for performane. I don't know why we are any different.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:39 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:40
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, can you offer your perspective on Bret's question about what it takes for schools to partner with outside organizations?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:40 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:40
    [Comment From BretBret: ] 
    If a public school district wants to partner with an outside Alternative Education partner to help educate our low performing schools with a large number of risk students, what would be the best process to follow in order to gain funding for this type of program?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:40 Bret
    2:43
    robert balfanz: 
    A number of the stimulas funding opportunities specifically state that one use is to develop effective recovery strategies for students who are severly off track to graduation or who have dropped out but want to come back. So there is interest in this type of work. That said, I can not think of a specific federal program currentlty funded that would do. This is pending legilstion that would help but it has not been enacted yet. Its possible though that this might be an allowable use of Title 1 funds
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:43 robert balfanz
    2:44
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, Adriese wants to know if you can you share whether Mastery has to plans to, or is willing to do turnaround work in other cities besides Philly.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:44 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:44
    [Comment From Adriese WilliamsAdriese Williams: ] 
    What is Mastery's expansion plans, other states cities?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:44 Adriese Williams
    2:46
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    If we can, we would prefer to focus on the Philadelphia region. We are however thinking about how we can be a support to organizations elsewhere that are doing this work (hosting/training school leaders, etc. ).
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:46 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:46
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, as a quick followup to that, are you aware of other CMOs, other than Green Dot and Mastery, who are interested in doing turnaround work?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:46 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:49
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    I believe a number of CMO's in Calif are looking at turnarounds. AUSL i n Chicago has been doing work there for several years. I think the "field" is so new that organizations are still wondering whether turnarounds are so different that running a traditional school. I would argue that while turnarounds are initially challenging -- what makes a great school is the same regardless of the context.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:49 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:49
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, can you take this question from Jessica about what's been happening in NYC around closing large schools and replacing them with new, smaller schools?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:49 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:49
    [Comment From JessicaJessica: ] 
    I'm interested in the whole concept of creating capacity. In NYC what the chancellor is doing is closing down failing large schools and opening up small schools across the board. Nothing is being done to work with the people who are there who want to improve the school (and obviously get rid those who don't). It's one type of model that throws out a lot of good with the bad, instead of building on the good areas and people. Isn't there another model?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:49 Jessica
    2:51
    robert balfanz: 
    Yes there are other models. Thourgh our Talent Development Middle and High School program we have worked to turnaround existing large middle and high schools for the past 15 years. It is possible to re-design existing schools, create a new vision, ask existing teachers to commit to the vision or move on, and then implement a comprehensive design that has organizational, instructional, teacher and administrator professional development and coaching and enhanced student supports.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:51 robert balfanz
    2:52
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Robert, Glenda has a question about firing incompetent teachers that gets to the larger question of replacing most, if not all, of the staff at a school as one method of turnaround. Is that sometimes necessary?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:52 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:52
    [Comment From Glenda RaglandGlenda Ragland: ] 
    In order for any turn around strategies to work, there has to be effective teachers. Is one of the goals of the turnaround is to fire incompentent teachers?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:52 Glenda Ragland
    2:54
    robert balfanz: 
    The goal of turnaround is to build a teaching staff that has the skills and commitment to work in a very challenging environment in collective fashion to achieve much better results. To the extent that there are teachers who can not or will not do this, after they have been given a chance and supports, there needs to be a means to change them.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:54 robert balfanz
    2:55
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    Scott, can you take this question from Helenann about "charter like schools?"
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:55 Lesli A. Maxwell
    2:55
    [Comment From Helenann CivianHelenann Civian: ] 
    I am a former school Principal working in MA on Innovation Schools (charter like schools). Total redesign transforming a school in a district with a progressive Superintendent and School Committee. We are developing perfomance contracts along with signifigant autonomous changes in the way that we operated. What are your thoughts about Charter like schools and how can we support and demand that schools and districts share practices. Thoughts?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:55 Helenann Civian
    2:58
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 
    If it works, lets do it. I dont think parents care if the school is a charter, innovation school or district school -- they want a great school. I think having an innovation energy within the District sounds like a great thing. My experience has been that most of the "problem" is really about leadership, talent and culture. If you can hire a great leader, manage, supervise, and support talented teachers, and create a culture of accountability -- all within the existing District structures -- then you are a hero and I hope your success is replicated as quickly as possible.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:58 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    2:59
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    We'll wrap the chat up this afternoon with a question for both Robert and Scott to answer. Billions of dollars for school improvement are going to be coming down the pike in the next several weeks. Can you both talk about the opportunities and challenges that this influx of money and new urgency around turning around the nation's worst schools present?
    Thursday December 10, 2009 2:59 Lesli A. Maxwell
    3:01
    robert balfanz: 
    Its a great opportunity in a very tight timeframe. The temptation will be to grab something that has seem to work somewhere and implement it whole cloth. This will be a mistake in many cases, because, when schools turnaround its for a complex set of reasons both internal and external to the school. If we uncritical apply concepts without understanding the conditions which make success happen folks will be disappointed. So depsite the time crunch I would encourage folks to analyze their challenges, come up with new school design that meets them and then think through what stands in the way of rapid and deep and implementation. Solve that and you will have turnaround.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 3:01 robert balfanz
    3:02
    Scott Gordon, Mastery: 

    The spotlight on our nations most troubled schools is long overdue -- just the focus on the problem is a start. I think the $$ will incentize folks to look at the problem and experiment with soluitons. I do worry that the solutions will be programmatic -- ie a new curriculum or inititiative or redesign -- and I don't think those efforts will amount to much. I think we need to look at leadership and talent and culture. They ar much harder to change -- but the only road to real change.

    Thursday December 10, 2009 3:02 Scott Gordon, Mastery
    3:02
    Lesli A. Maxwell: 
    That concludes our chat today. Thanks for joining us everyone and a special thanks to our two guests for tackling all of these questions.
    Thursday December 10, 2009 3:02 Lesli A. Maxwell
    3:02
    Edweek Producer: Jennifer: 
    And thank you to Lesli for moderating today's chat, a transcript of which will be available shortly on this page. Make sure to check out Education Week's other upcoming and archived chats at www.edweek.org/go/chats
    Thursday December 10, 2009 3:02 Edweek Producer: Jennifer
    3:02
     

     
     
     

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