Turning around low performing articles…
I woke up today and thought it was 2004, when this blog first launched. There in The New York Times was a Michael Winerip story that, well, left a few things out. Read the story but the basic take is that federal turnaround policy is forcing a great principal out of a good school.
Russo grabs three pieces of low-hanging fruit: Is a really excellent principal representative of the overall landscape of persistently under-performing schools? The last line of the story indicates the principal isn’t actually being fired but is rather taking over the district’s school improvement work. Seems fishy? But most obvious: Federal law doesn’t hold schools accountable for the performance of students they haven’t had a least a year to teach. This is no small thing, the article states otherwise conflating taking a test with the scores being used for accountability.
But there is more than that. As the article mentions, the district did not have to even apply for this money, it was a competitive grant opportunity*. But what readers are not told is that there are other school improvement funds and other funds overall that can be purposed for school improvement and do not require personnel changes. Why not use those? But if the leaders of the district truly believe the requirements to be adverse then it’s essentially malpractice to take the funds. They fired a great principal for money? Really?
In addition, readers might want to know that test scores at the school are actually moving the wrong way and although Winerip focuses on the immigrant students mentioning overall rates only in passing, scores are no great shakes for white regular education students or really for any students in the school at all.** One in five students at grade level in reading (less in math) and low pass rates across the board. That all complicates the idea put forward in the article that just changing the student body will be the solution. There is also a discrepancy between Winerip’s claim that half of the students are foreign-born and the actual data on the school’s population that is especially hard to square with the idea that it is becoming more integrated.
If I sound suspicious about the article’s fact base, it’s from experience. Unfortunately, this is the tried and true Winerip method, especially the part about focusing on special education or minority students in schools that overall aren’t doing very well (see for instance previous coverage of New York City or his NCLB coverage). Plus more here. Punchline: These stories that seem too neat and tidy usually are. This is a messy business.
What’s frustrating is that there is a real issue here demanding attention. The trade-off between flexibility and prescriptiveness in federal school turnaround policy is a complicated one without a lot of good answers. Too much flexibility and districts and states take the easy way out and do nothing meaningful for students stuck in lousy schools. Too prescriptive and you get meaningless box-checking (as we may be seeing overall with the current dollop of school improvement funds), perverse consequences, or you stifle innovative approaches that might work if educators could try them. That’s a two-decade long story now and given all the attention to turnarounds now one that ought to be told in richer analytic depth. One day it will be, but today is not that day.
**For the school to be in this situation in the first place the problems have to be longstanding, another reason the blame the new immigrants/change the kids but not the teaching bit falls short.