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Getting school turnaround right: Response to Ren. Schools

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Last night I went to a meeting of the Teacher Action Group (they're also on Facebook) that talked about how to respond to Renaissance Schools.

People talked about a different vision of school turnaround in which teachers alongside parents, students, and the community had a voice in designing and implementing a reform plan. The other focal point of discussion was to press for the best options within the Renaissance Schools framework.

Key agenda points were:

  • uniting with parents and community forces to keep schools that are making real progress off the list.

  • promoting the Innovation model, as opposed to turning over schools to private or charter management, and

  • if schools are privatized, pressing for careful monitoring of how these schools operate. 

Another concern was the timetable for Renaissance Schools, which favors charter and private providers and does not allow enough lead time for putting an effective plan in place.

TAG is having a meeting next Monday to kick off this effort, which hopefully will give positive expression to the frustration over the present process while recognizing that turning around our lowest-achieving schools is the right priority.  

Over the next month I want to use this blog to discuss some of the key questions that are being raised in relation to Renaissance Schools, beginning today with reconstitution.

The Renaissance School plan calls for the forced transfer of all instructional staff with the option to rehire up to 50 percent. The District says this is no reflection on the professionalism of these teachers, but most teachers don’t see it that way and feel stigmatized and blamed for school failure.  

How can they feel otherwise? What else can the 50 percent rule mean? Half of you may be o.k., but half of you are definitely not up to the task.  

One teacher, after attending a meeting of building reps from targeted schools, had this to say: “Teachers and counselors are the bad people who have ruined these schools and will have to re-apply for their jobs. NTAs, secretarial, and maintenance people stay since they are blameless in the fiasco caused by the incompetent teachers and counselors. (What the hell did the counselors do? Allow our students to still apply to Princeton as of last week?)”

There are alternatives to reconstitution.

The Broad Acres elementary school in Montgomery County, MD is the focus of an important case study where the union, administration, and staff on the ground developed and implemented a successful alternative to reconstitution.

The problem with reconstitution is not just about what’s fair to teachers.

It's about what works.

It's about building on assets that even the lowest-achieving schools are likely to have.

It's about stability and a careful deployment of the teaching resources an urban district possesses.  

Turnaround advocates rightly point out that a transformation of the culture of teaching and learning at failing schools is critical. Given this, there may be circumstances where some form of staff replacement is necessary, but it shouldn’t be arbitrary and it should only be used when a careful analysis indicates that it makes sense.

Finally we need to be clear who the target is here. The NCLB regs and the Race to Top initiative of the Obama administration are driving this process and the reconstitution language comes from Washington. The Department of Education needs to rethink its model of turnaround schools and allow for more flexibility. Ackerman, of course, developed and promoted this program, and has to take responsibility for it. But let’s be clear: Philadelphia schools need Race to the Top dollars, and as long as that carrot is tied to punitive models of turnaround, we are limited to fighting on the margins. 

For some, apparently, the target is the PFT, which allegedly “sold us out” by agreeing to contract provisions that allow for the forced transfer of staff and longer school day. As PFT leadership has pointed out the administration doesn’t need the blessing of the union to reconstitute schools – those powers are in both state and federal law. What the union did was try to negotiate some protections for its members. The union needs to be part of the solution, pressing for a different turnaround model, and working with the community for the best options within the Renaissance framework over the next few months. It is not the enemy.

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