Superintendents Push Duncan on Turnarounds

By Dakarai I. Aarons — March 21, 2010 3 min read
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The Obama Administration’s regulations for turning around low-performing schools, embedded in federal school-improvement grants, could force the firing of principals making progress in those schools and make recruiting turnaround leaders even harder, urban superintendents told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a Sunday luncheon.

Each of the options the Education Department gives school districts under the regulations requires replacing the principal if that principal has been at a school in the bottom 5 percent of performance for more than two years.

San Francisco schools superintendent Carlos Garcia voiced the frustrations of many in the room, asking Duncan why two years was set as a target, noting that he has some principals who are making great progress at turning around their schools, but have been in place longer than two years.

“They are doing phenomenal things,” Garcia said, as his colleagues in the packed ballroom cheered him on. “I’m supposed to fire them.”

Garcia, citing his own experience as a turnaround principal, said it took three years before he saw real change at the school he led, which became a Blue Ribbon school. Making changes in staffing and programming took time, he said. The new regulations, he said, may make it harder to recruit principals for high-needs schools.

“If it’s going to be two years, how are we going to get people to do that work?” he asked.

Duncan spoke to the group of urban superintendents and board members during a session at the Council of the Great City Schools’ legislative conference. Duncan belonged to the group during his seven years leading Chicago’s public schools.

The secretary told Garcia and the others he understands the turnaround regulations are seen as tough, but he is fighting against complacency by school districts and states, many of which did not aggressively change failing schools during the Bush administration. Duncan added that schools should be selected for the bottom 5 percent category using not outright test scores, but based on growth.

Duncan said he’s open to talking about more flexibility (“maybe we can move a bit”), but he doesn’t believe schools need the five years some educators say, citing schools he saw turn around quickly in Chicago, and one he visited in Philadelphia during his “Listening and Learning” tour last fall.

“What we want to do is get the best educators in the country to go to the toughest schools,” he said. “I want us to move on a sense of urgency.”

Duncan admitted that his stated goal of turning around 1,000 schools for each of the next five years outpaces the country’s current ability. “We don’t have the capacity to do 1,000 schools yearly,” he said. “We aren’t going to do it perfectly, but the answer isn’t inaction.”

Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director, told Duncan the group wants to see more flexibility to manage school turnarounds in a way that reflects what districts have learned works. The urban leaders gathered Sunday were among the nation’s most practiced in turning around schools, including superintendents Carol Johnson of Boston and Beverly Hall of Atlanta.

“The question is, what is realistic operationally?” Casserly said.

The flexibility districts seek, Casserly said, includes more latitude over how and where to deploy principals, and the ability to use turnaround funds to focus on feeder schools, as Duncan said he later did in his Chicago tenure. The group is in agreement with the overall vision for improvement, just not the details of how to get there.

“They aren’t asking for open-ended flexibility,” Casserly said. What they want is the “possibility of flexibility when it makes sense and where research indicates there are other possibilities.”

Clifford Janey, Newark’s superintendent, asked Duncan what relief districts could get to help them retain talented staff.

“They go out the door first because they were hired last,” he said.

Duncan admitted there are “no easy answers” to dealing with seniority provisions in teacher contracts, but said he has been encouraged by the willingness of the two national teacher union presidents to work with him, while acknowledging that the local unions may not embrace change at the same level.

“If we are serious about transformational change, we have to put this on the table,” he said.

Casserly and a few superintendents met briefly in private with Duncan and two of his top lieutenants, Carmel Martin and Thelma Melendez, before he departed.

Monday, members of the coalition will hear from another central figure in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.