For Federal Turnaround Funds, Think Locally

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Week after week, we read informative articles about underperforming schools turning themselves around. These are often heartening stories of traditional public schools, as well as charter schools. We read of dynamic principals, committed teachers, engaged parents, supportive local businesses, and dedicated community agencies. These are important stories because they remind us that school reform is within our reach; they teach us that schools can shape their own destinies. They make the oft-used quote from Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” a reality. I enjoy these stories and use them in my graduate classes with teachers, along with the two dozen or so that Karin Chenoweth has put into our hands through her two important books, It’s Being Done and How It’s Being Done.

But these stories raise two other questions. The first is: Why aren’t we reading equally convincing stories of turnaround school districts? We see far fewer stories about successful school districts than individual schools. Districts have tried former governors, generals, and business leaders as their superintendents, and these leaders often leave their districts in only slightly better shape than they found them. If we do read about a school district, it is often a story about how a superintendent is changing each building, rather than the district itself. Turnaround superintendents seem to know that district renewal is best accomplished school by school.

The second question is: Why aren’t there convincing stories of turnaround states? The Center on Education Policy routinely chronicles activity in the states, and it does a good job of keeping its eye on some specific states, such as Ohio and Colorado. Education Week annually grades the states on how well they are accomplishing change, and includes profiles of some, such as Maryland and Massachusetts, where there have been successes. Additionally, it would be unfair to ignore what we can learn from the periodic reports released through the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But, in the end, it is hard to read these analyses and come away inspired because we know that even states that earn A’s still have failing schools and schools on the brink of failing.

One reason we don’t see turnaround states may be our democracy. Like superintendents, “education governors” come and go, and progress moves painfully slowly. When a governor from one political party follows a governor from the other, it can easily be a case of “out with the old,” which impedes progress. Local school districts then go into holding patterns until the new policies are passed and implemented, which can take years. In Colorado, after seven years of serious reform by dedicated people, the professional-standards boards for teachers and administrators initiated under one governor were quickly and summarily dismissed under the next. In these larger state and district venues, change is much harder to accomplish and make stick, and this may explain why so many local schools continue to struggle.

But perhaps we can learn a lesson from the No Child Left Behind Act, which put school-level accountability into federal regulation by requiring that each public school in the nation report its progress, providing what some like to call transparency. De facto, the school building is the unit of analysis, and therefore it is also the unit of meaningful change. Yet, when we examine the federal funding for school improvement since NCLB, most grant competitions for elementary and secondary schools treat the states as the units of change in some routine and formulaic way. The funding typically goes to the states to rewrite their own laws, and the recent Race to the Top initiative has proven no different. It perpetuates the federal government’s role as funding the states to make change happen at the school level. This is something like breaking your ankle, but trying to convince yourself that the problem is in your mind. You may walk for a few moments, but not for long—eventually you have to admit the reality that your ankle is fractured and give it direct, local attention.

The states cannot fix their local schools. There is a wonderful scene in the documentary “Hard Times at Douglass High,” in which a gentleman from Maryland’s department of education spends his days at the school “monitoring,” and nothing seems to change. The school has 500 freshmen and struggles daily to graduate a few more than 200 seniors. An insightful young teacher, referring to the state department, flatly concludes, “They don’t know what to do either.”

"One way to turn more schools around is to send the federal funding directly to the individual schools. ... If the school is the unit of change, then invest in the people in the school."

One solution may be found in the business community’s successful management practices. There is a principle that those who are closest to the problem ought to be closest to the solution. When it comes to student achievement and school improvement, teachers are closest to the problem. But do we ever ask them for the solution? If we use as the measure how schools get federal grants for school improvement, the answer is often, no, we don’t. The same can be said for the way curricular innovations come to most schools: Those who are closest to the problem are often the last ones to know.

My students, who are practicing teachers, often talk with rolling eyes or emotionless deadpan of the changes they are being asked to make, because they simply cannot see how “this change works for our kids.” So should it surprise us when some teachers quietly choose not to implement new mandates? Are any of us much different in our workplaces? When we are expected to do something we don’t believe in, we often do it our way, which may really mean we aren’t doing it at all.

I think this last sentence captures much of the problem in inert curriculum reform in schools. School districts buy new books or programs with philosophical underpinnings some teachers just don’t buy into, so these reluctant teachers teach the content they like, the way they like. Our outdated view of how to fund and change schools and teaching perpetuates this questionable tradition.

One way to turn more schools around is to send the federal funding directly to the individual schools rather than to the states and school districts. If the school is the unit of change, then invest in the people in the school. Getting Race to the Top funds is the right model with the wrong recipients. Dangle significant funds in front of the people who are expected to implement change. Use the same proposal process to make teachers, school leaders, parents, and community members collaborate on plans to turn their own schools around. Put them in a position where they must become a team around some ideas to which they can commit, rather than continuing to allow them to work alone and with skepticism.

Any one of us has ideas on what would make our workplaces better, but so often no one asks. The school building’s stakeholders should be awarded direct federal incentives to work together on school improvement interventions that they believe in, and that they believe will work for the students in their building. Winning the future is not an isolated act; it is a collaborative act that asks the members of the school’s community to be the change they want to see, but we simply deserve a failing grade when it comes to asking teachers to commit to renewing their schools collectively. I would bet that, more often than not, the best ideas for turning around a school will come from within the building and not from something imposed. The philanthropic arms of Target, Wal-Mart, CVS, and countless others already do this: They invest in their local schools and communities.

Now, it’s time for the federal government to catch up and make those we are holding accountable for improving the nation’s education profile also responsible for the solutions.

Vol. 30, Issue 22, Pages 26-27, 29

Published in Print: March 2, 2011, as For Federal Reform Dollars, Why Not Think—and Act—Locally?
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