June 2010 Up Front

Changing the rules to change the game
By Michael A. Resnick

Viewed from 30,000 feet, the Obama administration is establishing itself as a game changer in K-12 education.

In 2009, the administration worked with congressional leaders to provide an unprecedented $100 billion for education within the economic stimulus program. The funds, designed for use over a two-year period, primarily went to help shore up K-12 education budgets, and were an addition to $40 billion per year that our public schools receive through the regular appropriations process.

However, in providing that unprecedented funding, the administration wanted something significant in return. Specifically, it required states to commit to four priority actions that it identified as essential for raising student achievement:

• Adopt standards and assessments for students to be college- and career- ready.

• Implement data systems to annually measure student growth and teacher effectiveness.

• Ensure effective teachers and principals are in place and that they are equitably distributed among schools in low-income areas.

• Commit to turning around low-performing schools.

For each priority, the Department of Education (ED) has become progressively more detailed in its requirements as states and school districts seek funding in phases I and II of the stimulus program and Race to the Top. ED’s blueprint to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) follows a like pattern.

From the department’s perspective, these details and requirements will help ensure that its priority actions are implemented in a manner that truly achieves game-changer status. In some instances, however, the details take on the trappings of a federal government forcing specific activities on states and local school districts. In those cases, other actions or approaches would be more appropriate to meet local needs, or would simply allow state and local school districts to work within more flexible parameters.

A case in point involves requirements in the ESEA blueprint, which provides four specific options for states to turn around schools that are in the lowest 5 percent in terms of performance. In brief, the options are:

• Turnaround, which requires that the principal be replaced, along with at least half of the staff.

• Conversion to a charter school or hiring of an education management company to run the school.

• Closing of the school, sending the students to one that is higher-performing.

• Transformation, which requires replacing the principal and addressing specific policies in areas such as teacher recruitment and compensation.

In essence, the department is seeking in all four options to have a new school emerge. The argument is that these schools have not succeeded despite being given several years to make the grade. A new culture is needed to achieve, and at the very least the proposed options require new leadership.

However, this reasoning has serious flaws. For example, the principal may not be the reason a school is failing. Other causes may be the basis for failure, and the infusion of adequate financial and program support could achieve the necessary results. Replacing principals and staff is not easy, especially in small and remote school districts. Further, in many instances staff can’t be fired simply to meet federal program criteria -- nor can teacher contracts easily be modified for that purpose.

The blueprint also requires the turnaround and transformation options to include a new governance structure. Without clarification, that could equate to takeovers by other agencies -- as distinguished from the Race to the Top program and the School Improvement Grants programs, which define new governance to include a special administrative office within the local district and under the auspices of the school board. For school board members, a federal overreach in ESEA that promotes an actual governance takeover will not fly.

At the same time, no strong research base supports the proposed options. In 2009, the 15-state CREDO study from Stanford University involving 70 percent of the nation’s charter school enrollment found that, while 17 percent of the charters outperformed traditional public schools, 46 percent were the same, and 37 percent did worse.

Rather than using a four-sizes-fits-all approach, the department should allow school districts to develop tailored programs that are evidence-based and more likely to successfully meet local needs. Continuing down this current path will be viewed as an unwarranted intrusion into local and state decision-making.

To truly be a game changer, the department needs to pull back in several areas on what is generally a good reauthorization plan and think more about how to encourage a following for its proposal at the local level (where education actually occurs). That is the better formula, rather than have these unnecessarily chilling proposals remain on the table.

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for advocacy and issues management. His column, On the Hill, appears monthly in ASBJ.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Anti-bullying policies target staff in schools
Forty-one states have anti-bullying laws in schools, but districts in Iowa and California have plans to institute the first anti-bullying policies exclusively for teachers and administrators. Officials in Iowa’s Sioux City Community School District and California’s Desert Sands Unified School District hope that positive adult modeling will influence student behavior. Steve Crary, Sioux City’s human resources director, says his district already has seen progress since passing its policy last year. “We’ve had a number of situations come forward. I think it’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” he told USA Today. While the programs may prove to be effective, they do not come cheaply. Desert Sands has spent almost $50,000 on consulting and training for its new policy, which puts discipline procedures in place when staff bully other staff or students.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Broward County Schools is responding to three major incidents of violence with a large anti-bullying campaign of its own. Called “You Have the Power to Make a Difference -- Use It,” the campaign encourages students, faculty, and staff to report threats in a multitude of ways. The district hopes the option of anonymity when reporting incidents online, by e-mail, on the phone, or in a text message will increase the number of cases reported. Reported incidents of crime in Broward rose by almost 4 percent last year.

Florida may teach safe dating in schools
Also in Florida, lawmakers are considering a bill that would make lessons about relationships a mandatory part of the health curriculum. The proposed legislation comes after a slew of teenage relationships in the state turned violent, including one involving a 15-year-old boy who stabbed and burned his 14-year-old girlfriend last year. In a statewide survey taken last year, at least one of every 11 Florida adolescents reported being the victim of physical dating violence. Under the new bill, students in grades seven to 12 would learn what makes a healthy relationship, as well as the warning signs of abusive behavior and whom to contact if they or someone else is in trouble. Florida was among six states recently awarded a $200,000 federal grant to study teen dating violence at the school level. The state is one of nearly two dozen since 2009 to consider public policy as a tool for addressing violence in teen relationships.

School bank branches offer dollars and sense
Bank branches are popping up at schools across the country, offering students savings accounts, loans, and a chance to learn about financial responsibility. Students at Carter High School in Strawberry Plains, Tenn., help staff the small bank that opened on Feb. 16 as part of a partnership with First Century Bank. “We’re easing them into learning about borrowing money and the responsibilities that go along with that,” Lynn Raymond, a banking and finance teacher, told USA Today. The first in-school bank opened in Milwaukee in 2000, and the idea has expanded to several dozen schools. Credit unions have an even greater presence; at least 324 branches are now located in schools.

Des Moines board leads energy makeover
Efforts by the Des Moines school board to remodel old school buildings to make them more energy efficient have paid off. The city is tied with two others for the No. 24 spot in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star award for efficiency. The award honors the nearly 5 million commercial buildings that have upgraded their energy use to be more environmentally friendly. Des Moines’ 36 Energy Star buildings, 26 of which are public schools, save the city almost $2 million a year in energy costs. The schools were renovated with money from the 1-cent sales tax increase that took effect in 1999, according to a report by the Des Moines Register.

Charter schools to be cut loose in Minnesota
Minnesota requires that its charter schools be overseen by another school or organization, but the number of charter schools could swiftly decline as more public schools break ties with the ones they oversee. Districts across the state have decided to disassociate from charters to pay more attention to their own public schools. Seven of the 14 districts that oversee charter schools said they are at least considering the idea of no longer doing so. The Minneapolis school district is the exception. District officials say they will continue to sponsor at least two charter schools, according to a report by the Star Tribune. Minneapolis says that these schools are important because they are “one way of attacking the stubborn achievement gap between black and white students.”

Not slacking on slacks
Get your pants off the ground. School districts from New York to Florida have started campaigns against baggy trousers. In New York, State Sen. Eric Adams has paid for several advertisements that support his message: “You can raise your level of respect if you raise your pants,” The Associated Press reported. Schools have been advocating for heightened waistlines and tightened belts for years. Last summer, the principal at a St. Petersburg, Fla. high school invested in thousands of plastic zip ties to help students keep their pants up. Polls show adults think schools should take a stand in banning baggy pants.

Parent notification rule draws districts’ ire
Colorado school officials are not happy about a proposal that would require all districts in the state to notify parents within 24 hours if a school employee is arrested or charged with a serious crime. The State Board of Education is debating the proposal after learning that officials in the Poudre School District did not tell parents about the arrests of two former employees. Officials with the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB) and the Colorado Education Association say the proposal is unfair to employees and districts. Wendy Armstrong, CASB’s associate director of member legal resources, said the proposal does not “strike a balance between protecting the school district’s staff from having their reputations and community standing harmed (or destroyed) on the one hand, and protecting children on the other.”

Watch out for ...
In a lawsuit that raises important issues for K-12 school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether a law school can refuse to recognize a student club that does not comply with its nondiscrimination policy. The case -- Christian Legal Society Chapter of the University of California Hastings College of Law v. Martinez -- will be decided before the court ends its term in early July.

Francisco Negrón, NSBA’s general counsel, said the case is important to K-12 districts because schools rely on nondiscrimination polices to promote diversity and foster an inclusive environment. “Our hope is that the court understands the nondiscrimination policies are powerful tools in the K-12 context, where public schools have a strong interest in eliminating discrimination and ensuring access of all students to valuable extracurricular programs,” Negrón said. “Nondiscrimination policies continue to be strong tools to protect our children in the school environment.”