‘Distinguished Educators’ Train Their Focus on Instruction

By Lynn Olson — April 01, 1998 9 min read
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Georgetown, Ky.

On a typical day at Georgetown Middle School, Steve Schenck might be found observing a fellow educator, modeling a lesson, or culling through a student’s writing portfolio.

The veteran teacher is a “distinguished educator” assigned to the 450-student building by the Kentucky Department of Education because the school failed to do well under the state’s accountability system.

The Kentucky program—known as STAR, for School Transformation Assistance and Renewal—is one of the most closely watched and replicated efforts in the nation for improving struggling schools. But the future shape of the program may depend on the outcome of a broader debate over changing the state’s accountability system.

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Unlike the approach taken by some states or districts such as New York City, the STAR program does not provide a specific list of reforms that troubled schools must follow. Instead, it’s based on the premise that most schools can be turned around with expert assistance from outside.

Created as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the project assigns distinguished educators to schools labeled “in decline” or “in crisis” because the proportion of their students who score well on state tests has dropped significantly.

At present, schools in decline must craft an improvement plan, are eligible for extra state money, and have at least one distinguished educator—either an experienced teacher or administrator—assigned to them part time. Schools in crisis are assigned at least two distinguished educators, who have the authority to make decisions previously made by the school staff. They also evaluate employees and, if necessary, recommend their dismissal.

‘Professionally Rewarding’

Of the 53 schools originally assigned distinguished educators in 1994, 36 have since improved enough to leave the program. An additional 16 are expected to do so this year. Only one school—which is on its third principal in four years—continues to flounder.

Carolyn Kelley, an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied the program, said one reason distinguished educators appear to work is that they identify the weak spots, then introduce practices similar to those in more-successful sites.

“A couple of teachers said they were really afraid of having the distinguished educator come in and tell them what to do,” she said. “But they [later] described it as one of the most difficult, but one of the most professionally rewarding, experiences they had ever had.”

The approach has proved so successful it has been copied elsewhere. In 1996, Congress required each state to form a corps of distinguished educators—or an alternative—to help low-performing schools under the federal Title I program. And the U.S. Department of Defense has consulted with Kentucky to create a program of its own to help schools with lagging test scores.

Unlike principals, who must also balance the books, make sure the buses run on time, and see that the toilets are working, distinguished educators focus solely on instruction.

Complex Challenge

“There’s no one in a school who is in charge of the academics, of academic leadership,” said Mr. Schenck, the former high school language arts teacher assigned to Georgetown Middle School here. “I look at the job as an opportunity to come in and do that.”

Distinguished educators receive unpaid leave from their home districts and are appointed for at least one year. Each one costs the state roughly $95,000 a year in salary, professional development, technology, and travel costs.

They describe themselves as part ethnographers, part cultural anthropologists. “You have to understand the culture of a school,” explained Elaine Farris, who has been a distinguished educator for more than a year.

Distinguished educators also must earn the trust of wary teachers and administrators. “You have to have very thick skin and a very short memory,” said Judy Johnson, who has had such a position for six years, “because often the best people in the building will challenge you initially.”

Lack of Focus

Many distinguished educators say that struggling schools suffer primarily from a lack of focus. Although individual teachers may be effective, the schools themselves are fragmented.

“The word ‘focus’ should be underlined 40 times,” said Robert Lumsden, an associate commissioner in the state education department. “We found schools were too diverse. They were doing a hundred things, but none very well.”

In addition to drawing up a school improvement plan with the help of the distinguished educator, each STAR school must complete monthly progress reports, an annual self-review, and submit to a yearly review by an outside team.

At Georgetown Middle School, north of Lexington, Mr. Schenck has worked with teachers to introduce writing portfolios in every class. And he has brought in experts to help analyze test data and improve specific aspects of the curriculum. Seventh graders, for example, can now receive individual help with their writing from a Title I language arts teacher and two certified assistants. And they draft and redraft their writing projects on new, wireless computers.

“I think the assistance we’ve gotten has been good,” David Sledd, an 8th grade science and math teacher, said. “They weren’t dictators to us.”

The school also has received more than $115,000 in extra funds that have helped purchase computers, provide running water in science labs, and buy electronic instruments for the music room.

All STAR schools are eligible for additional money from the state. During the current year, about $2.3 million in grants is being distributed among 190 schools. Distinguished educators also help leverage funds from the local district.

Tenure Suspended

Like many efforts to turn around troubled schools, the program can also replace teachers and administrators who are judged incompetent. But professional development is preferred over faculty purges.

At Georgetown, a second distinguished educator, Mike Suttles, evaluates each teacher and administrator at least twice every six months.

“The stress level is raised considerably,” said Mr. Suttles, a former middle school principal, “but I approach it from a viewpoint that I’m there to help them, and I try to make that perfectly clear.”

“With people who have questionable skills, or who have not invested themselves in the job, it becomes a problem right away because having someone peering over their shoulder is a challenge to them,” Ms. Johnson, the veteran distinguished educator, acknowledged. “Natural attrition has been encouraged and developed.”

In practice, the state has rarely wielded the heavy hand. “This program does not do what certain people would expect, which is to go in and clean house,” said David Allen, the branch manager for the project. “It’s not designed to do so.”

Even so, some see an inherent conflict in asking distinguished educators to both evaluate and help. The state has tried to address such a conflict by assigning one distinguished educator in schools in crisis to conduct evaluations of faculty members, and the other to work with the staff primarily on school improvement.

Positive Reviews

Despite the stress, most educators rate the program highly. A survey by researchers at the University of Louisville found that 80 percent of teachers, principals, superintendents, and distinguished educators in STAR schools rated the distinguished educator as “effective” or “highly effective.” About half said they wanted the person to spend even more time in their building.

And there is some sign that the improvements may last even after distinguished educators depart. Of the 36 schools that have improved enough to leave the program, about 29 percent are predicted to fall into the “success” or “rewards” category for the 1996-98 biennium, based on 1997 test results. And another 44 percent would fall into the “improving” category. About 20 percent would enter the decline or crisis category. Insufficient information is available on the remaining schools.

The program has proved so popular that the state recently launched an initiative—called the Kentucky Leadership Academy—to train district teams in important parts of the distinguished educator/STAR program.

The biggest problem in Kentucky—and in many states and districts struggling to fix broken schools—is that there are far more of those schools than there are resources to help.

In the first two years of Kentucky’s accountability system, when only 53 schools were on the list of those in decline, most distinguished educators were able to focus on one school. By the second biennium, the number of schools needing help skyrocketed to 175.

Suddenly, the state’s 48 distinguished educators found themselves juggling four or five schools. “Ithink it was an extremely strong program in the first cycle they went into schools, where you really had a sort of one-on-one, educator-to-school ratio and you could have very good communication,” said Susan Perkins Weston, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Councils. “Over the last two years, I have heard a great deal of frustration about what happens to communication and follow-through when someone is in three different buildings every week.”

The expansion also meant spreading the $5 million available in grant money for the two-year period among more than three times as many schools.

Schools have complained that the distinguished educators assigned to them change from year to year. Noe Middle School in Louisville, a school labeled “in decline,” is on its third distinguished educator since December 1996. “The advice and the help from the distinguished educators has been very useful,” said Principal Ronnie L. Crutcher, “but I don’t think we needed all that flip-flopping.”

At Georgetown Middle School, which has had two sets of distinguished educators in two years, teachers say the program has been helpful, but the stigma of being labeled a failing school has not.

“I can’t say the label was a good thing,” said Joan Kille, the chairwoman of the science department. The day of the announcement, she remembers, “I had a student turn to me with tears in his eyes and say, ‘Ms. Kille, does this mean we’re the dumbest kids in the state?’”

Teachers resent the label. “I thought we had done a very good job of preparing students,” said Mr. Sledd, the 8th grade science teacher. “I immediately started questioning some of the practices of the [state] tests.”

Uncertain Future

The greatest challenge facing the program may be garnering enough political support for the state’s accountability system to survive. Kentucky lawmakers are considering major changes to the state’s testing system and the criteria used for rewarding and sanctioning schools.

A bill passed by the state Senate last week would allow distinguished educators to serve in an advisory capacity through the remainder of this school year.

After that, the state board would create new guidelines for providing “highly skilled education assistance” to schools, the precise details of which are unclear.

While some predicted significant changes for the program, Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state education department, downplayed the legislation’s impact. “It doesn’t really change things,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1998 edition of Education Week as ‘Distinguished Educators’ Train Their Focus on Instruction


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