Congress Passes New Improvement Option for Struggling Schools

Congress Recognizes that the Department of Education's Turn-Around Options and More (SIG) Money are NOT Improving Schools or Student Outcomes

Dear Colleagues,

I hope you are warm and safe after all of the weather across the country this past week. For my part, while we were snowed out of one two-day workshop in the early part of the week, we worked with 100 educators from across Arkansas the past two days discussing "Strategic and Intensive Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Interventions for Challenging Students." That followed a Wednesday consultation at a school where we are helping them implement school-wide and effective Response-to-Instruction and Intervention services, supports, strategies, and programs--alongside a new behavioral accountability system that is part of their redesigned school-wide discipline (PBSS/PBIS) program.

Today's Topic: Outcomes from the US Department of Education's Money and Mandates

Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Education has administered and awarded more than $5 billion in federal funds (through the School Improvement Grant-SIG) to schools that are among the lowest performing in the nation. Requiring schools to choose one of four school improvement models, the results have been mixed:

  • While more than two-thirds of schools entering the first program in 2010-11 saw gains in reading and math after two years in the program, another third of the schools actually saw student achievement decline.
  • Critically, these "gains" only amounted to an 8% increase in math, and a 5% increase in reading.
  • Even more significant: The schools entering the program in 2011-12 could not near duplicate the math and reading gains reported from the first cohort.
  • Here, 55% of the schools showed gains in math (of just 2 points), while 38% of the schools declined and 7% showed no change. 61% of the schools showed gains in reading (of just 1 point), while 34% declined and 6% showed no gain)

Education Week quoted Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, who said, "Given the amount of money that was put in here, the return on investment looks negligible at this point... I don't know how you can interpret it any other way."

Two of the predominant problems with the Department's approach to school improvement are (a) it does not front-load a diagnostic approach to identify the specific reasons why students are not achieving so that strategically-targeted capacity-building, professional development, curriculum and instruction, and student-centered interventions are implemented; and (b) three of the four models essentially involve firing administrators and/or instructional staff.

Relative to the first problem--there is no struggling business in this country (I guess, except for education) that would not conduct a "SWOT" analysis of its strengths and assets, weaknesses and limitations, opportunities to maximize resources and minimize barriers, and existing or future threats BEFORE designing and implementing a multi-faceted, outcomes-based action plan-that, by the way, involves a significant infusion of money, time, and effort.

Relative to the second problem--why does the federal government assume that school failure is a personnel problem of such significance that administrators and teachers need to be immediately fired, or (at least) should work under the threat of dismissal? Would a business immediately fire an administrator (or release an entire sales force) before its SWOT analysis determined that this was needed? Finally, assuming that many educators "do not know what they do not know," why would we not use SWOT analysis results to identify educator and student knowledge and skill gaps so that targeted professional development and intensive coaching can be provided-rather than untested, "tinkering-around-the-edges," and expensive school improvement packages that are not based on valid diagnostic assessments?

Once again, is this how a business--that wants to stay in business--would act?

Congress Listens and Acts

When Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2014 budget last month on January 17, it included language that added a fifth school improvement option called the "whole school reform" model. This option allows schools to try out interventions that have track records of success, but that are not included in the current four options. Congress also extended the length of the SIG grants for rural schools from three to five years. While "fifth option" approaches still need to be approved by the Secretary of Education, Congress clearly decided to vote in favor of competence rather than just more cash.

As quoted in Education Week, Michele McLaughlin, an aide to lawmakers on the Senate education committee stated, "Clearly, [lawmakers] have heard from the field. My interpretation is that they view the four models, which are based primarily on personnel and management changes, as too narrow."

How Can You Proceed

We believe that "the beginning of the new school year begins in April." That is, in order to implement real changes on the first day of the 2014-2015 school year, districts and schools need to begin the strategic planning process now so that everything--curricular (re)design, staff (re)organization and (re)deployment, professional development, students status assessments and strategic instructional and intervention placements--are done in May, June, and July. While many schools think they do this, the question is,

"Do all of your administrators, staff, and students have all of the knowledge, skills, resources, services, and supports to ensure that every student's academic and social, emotional, and behavioral needs are met on the first day of the new school year?"

If the answer is "no"--then the planning process must start now.

To help, we are making the webinar below (presented previously to a national audience) available free. While it especially addresses the needs of Priority and Focus schools, this webinar has been used by countless, successful schools and districts that want to take their improvement "to the next level of excellence."

For Priority and Focus schools, this approach (which is the underlying school improvement model written into the Arkansas Department of Education's approved ESEA Flexibility process), may be the "fifth option" that you can begin to use for your school(s) beginning next school year.

Please feel free to share these and other materials that you find on the Project ACHIEVE website with your colleagues, education and community leaders, and parents across your district or state.

In order to take every school in the country to "the next level of excellence," we need to use field-tested and outcome-based strategies that identify the services, supports, strategies, and programs that all students need to be successful. While well-intended, politically-driven (as opposed to educationally-sound) federal and state mandates and school improvement "options" have not produced the desired results--because many of them violate underlying management, pedagogical, and psychological principles and practices.

We can do better. And I hope that this is the beginning of a new way of thinking about how to approach--and actually plan and be successful on--this journey.