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Thompson: SIG Failure Explained

CenterIn a stark contrast to the rosy scenario presented by Secretary Duncan last week, the Center on Reinventing Education's new report, "Tinkering Towards Transformation," by Sarah Yatsko, Robin Lake, Elizabeth Cooley Nelson, and Melissa Bowan describes the failure of Washington State to invest federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds in a transformative manner. The Center discovered that the $900,000 per year per school of SIG money produced marginal results because the rushed turnaround process ignored a large body of research on making dramatic improvements in low-performing schools. "District administrators described the entire process as extremely challenging, with one calling it a 'nightmare.'"  One district SIG director started an interview with the Center's researchers by inadvertently revealing the seat-of-your-pants nature of the process.  The district's director asked, "'Did we have any information that we could provide him on how to successfully turn around a failing school?' He went on to explain that he was at a loss as to how to do this."

Read below for more details from the report, and my take on what what SIG gets right and how it contradicts Mass Insight's turnaround "Bible."

The Center discovered that districts faced tight timelines and rushed negotiations with unions, and that some teachers did not learn that they were hired for SIG schools until midsummer. Districts' communications were confused and focused on compliance with the formal grant terms, not support for school-level efforts. Districts were unable to articulate a theory of change for chronically poor-performing schools and yet they rarely granted autonomy to their SIG schools.   Systems mostly saw SIG as an "extra," and not seed money for sustainable change.  On the other hand, SIG was praised for providing "political cover" in order to "'break down the union.'"

"Tinkering for Transformation" found that more than 2/3rds of schools adopted  "kitchen sink" improvement strategies or "scattershot" policies that funded "random and often peripheral interventions." Schools and districts were hesitant to risk running afoul of the federal "supplement not supplant" Title I rules, and thus chose to err on the side of caution. Significant funds were not spent because "districts were far more concerned with the consequences of improperly spent funds than the consequences of unsuccessful turnaround efforts." Perhaps this inertia (as opposed to the power of unions) helps explain why a principal who wanted to change seven staff members did not complete any of the paperwork necessary to make those changes. Moreover, the only district that hired a principal from outside did so after no one applied for the job from within the district.

The Center expected that state turnaround leaders would voice complaints similar to those of district and school leaders.  After all, one state leader protested, "They’re wanting us to think innovatively and outside the box, like, in two weeks." On the contrary, from their distant perch, state officials saw themselves as the providers of resources and expertise around human resources, professional development, and use of data that they believed was driving the SIG!?!?

I have often been critical of the Center on Reinventing Publication Education and I still have to ask why they and other "reformers" did not expect systems to approach SIG with the belief that "this too shall pass."  But, I support the Center's  praise for Mass Insight's The Turnaround Challenge, which was supposed to be Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's "bible" for scaling up school turnarounds. Apparently the Center also sees Duncan's hurried SIG program as the antithesis of the wisdom of the The Turnaround Challenge.

Mass Insight's masterpiece stressed the "Three Cs," Control, Capacity, and Clustering. The best part of the document was the "Readiness Triangle." It explained that "turnaround is, at its core, a people strategy." The triangle emphasized the need to address poverty, discipline and engagement, and creative responses to "constant unrest" in troubled schools. A foundation must be laid to extend the school day and year to build close student-adult relationships, to offer "personalized instruction based on diagnostic assessment, and flexible time on task," and to create a "teaching culture that stresses collaboration and continuous improvement."                        

"Tinkering Toward Transformation" should prompt a discussion of how a commitment to building capacity and a warning about the rushed pace of turnarounds morphed into Duncan's campaign to turnaround 5 to 10% of the nation's schools before they even had a chance to plan their work, much less invest in readiness. I would also ask how did an explanation of why high-poverty schools are fundamentally different was turned into a series of one-size-fits mandates. Perhaps the Center could offer some insights into how an affirmation of collaboration and teacher buy-in, as well as a warning about the shortage of qualified teachers and principals, was used to justify the mass removal of educators. The Turnaround Challenge, called for engaging curricula, flexibility, diagnostic assessments, and a suspicion of standardized testing, and yet the Center described a school that had to use SIG money to bring in consultants to persuade a district to allow it to try project-based learning.  After it did such a great job of describing the educational culture of compliance, I wonder if the Center might now be open to the professional judgments of teachers who have long been constrained by the administrative paralysis it has perpetuated.-JT (@drjohnthompson)image via.






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