end run

Bloomberg's turnaround switch would cause 33 school closures

Under a proposal laid out by Mayor Bloomberg today that took education insiders by surprise, the city would retain access to threatened federal dollars for struggling schools by riffing on a familiar strategy: school closure.

The announcement in today’s State of the City address sets the stage for a showdown with the United Federation of Teachers — and maybe also with the State Education Department.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew had already dismissed the idea that schools could receive the funds without union support by this afternoon. But State Education Commissioner John King has yet to weigh in on the strategy.

Under Bloomberg’s plan, the city would swap dozens of schools from one federally mandated overhaul strategy to another in a bid to escape a requirement that the city and union come to terms on a new teacher evaluation system. An impasse over negotiations caused King last week to cut off federal funds to 33 city schools that were undergoing the “transformation” and “restart” strategies, which require new evaluations.

Under the mayor’s plan, the schools would undergo “turnaround” instead. Turnaround is more aggressive than the other strategies, requiring at least half of a school’s teachers to be replaced. But it also does not require that new teacher evaluations be in place, according to the Obama administration’s guidelines for the funds, known as School Improvement Grants.

Mulgrew immediately dismissed the plan, arguing that the union would have to sign off on turnaround. That would be true — but only if Bloomberg had been talking about the type of turnaround that the Obama administration envisioned.

What the city is actually proposing is using a second, lesser-known turnaround that state regulations allow. Essentially, the city would close 33 schools and reopen them immediately, with new names and identification numbers. Then a team of educators selected for the “new” school would hire a new staff with the union’s input, pulling half of the new teachers from the original school’s roster.

The process is based on a piece of the current union contract known as Article 18-D, which outlines a hiring process used whenever the city closes a school and replaces it with others. Article 18-D requires that at least half of the original school’s staff stays on.

The only difference between the city’s longstanding school closure policy and today’s turnaround proposal is that the students at the turnaround schools would not be displaced. This distinction is significant, given criticism from state officials and others that the city’s closure policy has turned some schools into dumping grounds for high-needs students.

It’s not clear whether the state’s close-and-reopen approach will pass muster with the Obama administration, which has a stricter standard for turnarounds and has urged states to collaborate with their teachers unions.

But it has gotten the state’s endorsement in the past. In September, King signed off on the city’s application for SIG funds to support 11 long-planned school closures, earmarking federal money 16 replacement schools.

Those schools kept receiving SIG money even after King cut off the federal funds to transformation and restart schools, a promising sign for the strategy the city announced today.

King did not respond publicly to Bloomberg’s speech today. But he has spent the last month talking tough on evaluations and is unlikely to be enthused that the city seems to have discovered a way to avoid negotiating them, at least temporarily.

The city’s solution to the evaluations impasse is stopgap at best. Settling on new evaluations is required for the city to receive other pots of federal funds or to negotiate a new contract with the United Federation of Teachers.

King could have some recourse against the city’s proposal. When he froze the city’s SIG funds, he told school officials that they had to notify the state if they wanted to seek approval to change the overhaul model they were using. It’s conceivable that he could deny the request, leaving the city stuck using strategies that require an evaluation deal to fund.

Also, because turnaround wouldn’t start until September in the schools, it’s unclear whether the city could expect this year’s federal funds to be restored, even if King does give his okay.

The city will have little wiggle room on execution if it gets a green light to move forward with the turnarounds. State education law requires the city to post “Educational Impact Statements” for proposed school closures at least six months before the first day of the school year when they would begin. That means the city has just weeks to craft the statements for 33 schools — more than it has ever proposed to close in a single year before. Any missteps would provide material for a legal challenge from the union.

Plus, the combination of the Obama administration’s requirement that no less than half of teachers be replaced and the union’s requirement that no more than half of teachers be replaced means that the reconstituted schools would have to achieve a perfect 50 percent balance between existing and new teachers.

Teachers who are not selected for the new schools would enter the Absent Teacher Reserve, the city’s pool for teachers without permanent positions. Bloomberg has blamed the reserve for costing the city millions of dollars a year.

Several principals could also be out of their jobs. Even under the second type of turnaround that Bloomberg is pursuing, the model requires that principals who have been at their schools for more than two years be replaced.

The news arrived to principals at the 33 schools today amid a tumultuous year. In recent weeks, they were left waiting to see what would come of federal grants they had been promised as teacher evaluation negotiations disintegrated.

One principal, who asked not to be identified, said she was told today that she would be able to keep her job. But, she said, “If I have to do this, I would leave on my own. I would never fire 50 percent of my staff.”

Under the city’s proposal, all of the 14 schools currently undergoing restart, which hands control to nonprofit managers, would become turnaround schools and keep their nonprofit partners. So would most of the transformation schools, 13 in all. And the city would add six schools, including several it had decided against closing this year, to the roster of those receiving SIG funds.

Six schools currently undergoing transformation would stop receiving SIG funds. The city has already announced plans to close two of the schools, and it said today that it would find new funds to finish out the year at two other schools that have not responded sufficiently to improvement efforts.

Two other schools would continue to overhaul their programs but would not receive federal funds to do so, city officials said. The two schools, Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School and Boys and Girls High School, have longtime principals who would likely have to be removed under turnaround.

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”

school turnaround lessons

Too many good teachers are quitting Tennessee’s Achievement School District, researchers say

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Students at Cherokee Elementary, an iZone school in Memphis, engage with their teacher. Tennessee's iZones have had success recruiting teachers with high marks in the state's teacher evaluation system.

A growing question in Memphis and across Tennessee has been why local school improvement efforts seem to be outperforming the state’s 5-year-old flagship initiative.

Now, researchers charged with studying that initiative have a hypothesis: Schools in the Achievement School District have struggled to hold on to their highest-rated teachers.

For their latest report, released on Tuesday, researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College partnered with the University of Kentucky to examine the extent to which the ASD and local turnaround initiatives called innovation zones, or “iZones,” have been able to recruit and retain teachers with top ratings.

They found that ASD teachers left their jobs far more frequently than teachers in iZone schools in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga.

That wasn’t a surprise the first year a school was in the ASD, given the requirement that teachers in turnaround schools must reapply for their jobs.

But even in following years, fully half of the ASD’s teachers left its schools each year. Among iZone schools, the corresponding rates were 40 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

In both initiatives, lower-rated teachers were replaced by better ones. Researchers found this to be more pronounced in iZone schools where, on Tennessee’s 5-point scale, incoming teachers scored an average of more than a half point higher than those moving to other schools or leaving the profession. In the ASD, incoming teachers averaged just over a third of a point  higher than outgoing teachers.

“The story seems to be one of general success in getting effective teachers in the door of these turnaround schools, and the iZone schools are also managing to keep and improve them,” said Vanderbilt’s Gary Henry, who co-authored the report.

Henry said disruption is a key part of school turnaround work, and that it might be necessary to lose some bad teachers before a school can thrive. But just as necessary is improving teachers already at a school — and that takes time.

“The iZone hired good teachers, kept good teachers, and their teachers improved,” he said.

Both iZones and the ASD had more difficulty recruiting good teachers for the schools they absorbed in the 2014-2015 school year. Henry said it’s not clear why that happened.

It could be because both the ASD and the Memphis iZone, the largest of the three, added high schools, and it’s typically harder to get effective high school teachers to switch schools. Or, it could be that Memphis, where nearly all of the ASD schools are located, needs more good teachers in general.

“Memphis might be reaching a ceiling on the number of effective teachers willing to move into priority schools,” he said of schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. “They’re going to have to expand their pool in order to attract the type of talent needed to transform the lowest-performing schools.”

The researchers note that the iZone gains might not last. The one in Memphis has used teacher pay incentives to lure high-quality teachers to its schools, relying at least in part on philanthropic funds. Without those funds, it’s not clear if the iZone could be expanded or sustained.

“It’s terrific when philanthropies are able to support mechanisms proven to work,” he said, “but in the long run, it’s uncertain whether Memphis will be able to maintain these gains.”

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson said she is heartened that more effective teachers have moved to working in historically low-performing schools. She attributed the ASD’s initial recruiting challenges to being “a big unknown,” but expressed optimism about the future.

“As we increase recruitment and retention of effective teachers in our schools, the ASD’s growing priority is to champion the efforts of local districts, community partners and the Department of Education to strengthen the pipeline and critical supports for effective teachers in all schools,” Anderson said in a statement.

This report follows a high-profile 2015 study that showed schools in Tennessee’s iZones had positive effects on student learning, while the ASD’s effects were statistically insignificant.  Henry said Vanderbilt researchers hope to examine in the future how school quality was impacted at the schools left by highly rated teachers to go to the iZone or the ASD.

You can read the full report here.