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Thompson: A Turnaround Strategy for Secretary Duncan

Clone-of-addicts Six recommendations for a kinder, smarter, better turnaround strategy:

1Repudiate collective punishment of educators, with written guarantees that also meet the legitmate needs of turnaround specialists and others to improve teacher quality.

2. Stop the scapegoating. Reducing the percentage of stigmatized schools from 1/3rd to 5% gives no relief to urban systems where failing schools are disproportionately located.

3. Remember that you can’t just shoot urban teachers and principals, as suburban schools get relief. Otherwise, how can "reformers" stop rhe outmigration of educators to less challenging systems that would inevitable under his ESEA?

4. See principals as the canary in the coal mine, who would be the real sacrificial lambs in the proposed ESEA. How do you recruit talented school leaders when they will lose their jobs if they do not increase performance for all students, with no loopholes, when so few have succeeded even with the assistance of NCLB’s tricks and exclusions?

5.  The Grand Bargain. to prevent teachers from being condemned as ineffective just because they work at an ineffective school..

6. Walk a mile in the school boards’ shoes. This should be the easiest rule for the former C.E.O. of the Chicago schools. Were the administration's ESEA to be adopted, urban districts would be required to balance the following.

As systems face new "aspirational" goals, at a time of fiscal shortages, the "prescriptedness" of federal accountability concentrated on urban districts will reinforce the culture of compliance, as the most troubled systems districts also close large numbers of schools and large numbers of educators are fired. The natural tendency would be to replace principals and teachers in failed schools with people who were dismissed from other failing schools. But those teachers, almost by definition and often through no fault of their own, will have been labeled for not meeting growth targets. Presumably, that would make them ineligible to be hired at low performing schools.

So, there will be a traffic jam as educators are transferred to low poverty and magnet schools, as other excellent educators flee to the suburbs. Not only will this supply and demand equation make it more difficult to staff troubled schools, it will happen as the irresistible force of comparability (or what the administration hopes will be irresistible) meets the potentially immovable object of collective bargaining agreements that must be approved by the rank-in-file, who believe that their leaders have been too moderate.

Seniority can and should be renegotiated, but that requires trust. Faced with large numbers of empty classrooms, along with a surplus of educators prohibited from teaching in those classrooms, the temptation to fire more teachers will grow. The Grand Bargain would be the logical method for addressing that dilemma, but peer review requires trust. It is easy to see how administrators facing so many contradictory mandates would be less than willing to share control.

And besides, the surplus of teachers could quickly disappear as the top talent flees to the suburbs. Of course, that fix would be temporary as the remaining middle class families and the top students abandon their magnet schools following their favorite teachers to less chaotic systems, that are doubly attractive now that educators in low poverty schools are freed from the indignities of NCLB.


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The question of stigma is very worrisome. The call to fire (or "replace") so many staff in low-performing schools might have serious repercussions for the profession. I don't know of many other professions where you must work in a very difficult environment with a mandate to improve a product over which you feel you don't have full or even much control--or be fired and then branded as a failure and have difficulty getting another job in your field as a result of the stigma you'd carry. (When corporate leaders are fired for failure, they still parachutes and are often rehabilitated as consultants, board members, or some other respectable animal.)

Very young TFA grads might feel they can risk employment in a struggling school, because they might not be pinning all their hopes on a teaching career. (And I don't think they necessarily deserve criticism for this perspective.) What's more, they wear the TFA badge of honor, which might insulate them from some of the repercussions of teaching in a "failing" school.

But what happens to those people who see teaching as a long-term career choice? Will they take a job in a struggling school?

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