Union leaders and a House Democrat pushed back this morning against the administration's proposals for turning around chronically underperforming schools.
A newly released plan from Rep. Judy Chu of California criticizes the four models for improving the nation's worst schools pushed by the administration through its School Improvement Grants program.
In order for districts to receive the funds, they must choose one of four strategies to improve their troubled schools: turnaround, restart, closure or transformation. Three of the four methods put educators on the chopping block. Turnaround and transformation require firing the principal. Under transformation, principal dismissal is accompanied by instructional reforms and more learning time, among a few other provisions. A school implementing turnaround must also fire 50 percent of the teachers. To restart, a school must close and reopen as a charter or another type of education management organization. The last option, closure, means shutting down and sending students to a higher-performing school in the district.
The options deprive schools of needed flexibility, argued Chu. "While the purpose of [the school turnaround] program is admirable in theory, it fails in practice," her report states. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, backed her up at a press conference this morning.
"What I'm doing with this report," Chu said, "is turning around the conversation." She went so far as to say that not rethinking the current models would be an injustice to kids. The new plan is vaguer than the administration's four turnaround models, advocating for "a menu of research-driven options" that would make school closure a last resort.
One of the criticisms of the administration's emphasis on turnarounds is that the research behind it is thin.
"The amount of research literature specifically on the four options is small," said Jessica Johnson, chief program officer at Learning Point Associates.
Chu's efforts come on the heels of the decision to rehire all of the teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, bringing to an end a saga that drew national attention in February when the local superintendent fired the school's staff as part of a federal turnaround program.
During the ensuing dispute, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan stepped in to voice support for the superintendent. The controversy peaked when an effigy of Obama was found hanging upside down in a Central Falls classroom. Ultimately, after months of drama and debate, teachers accepted a package of conditions that included longer school hours, more professional development and summer training to keep their jobs.
Congress is also considering the issue of turnarounds this week.
The House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing about best practices for school turnarounds Wednesday morning. At the hearing, school leaders also called for more flexibility in federal policies for improving the nation's lowest-performing schools.
"Turnaround models for our area are nonstarters," said Thomas Butler, superintendent of the Ridgway Area School District in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, 243 of 501 school districts are rural and, according to Butler, lack the resources needed to implement the four turnaround models pushed by the administration. One of the administration-approved models, for example, requires sending students to a higher-performing school in the district. Sending students to a better school in Ridgway would be impossible, Butler added, since another one doesn't exist.
The hearing was the ninth in a series on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the principal law that governs K-12 education in America also known as No Child Left Behind. Duncan would like to codify the four turnaround models as reflected in his blueprint for ESEA renewal.
Comments from lawmakers at the hearing reflected sensitivity over firings. Low-performing schools need a fresh start, said House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif. "A fresh start doesn't mean firing all the teachers and only hiring back an arbitrary number.... [It] means buy-in from school leaders, teachers, parents and the community."
Chu, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, is "hopeful" that Miller will be open to rethinking the models for ESEA reauthorization. She has not spoken with Duncan about her proposal but plans to do so.