Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ingredients for Turning Around Failing District Schools - Be Bold

As part of the state's application for federal Race to the Top funding, now under preparation by the state Education Department, New York will include a "turnaround" plan for failing district schools, most of which are low-performing high schools in New York City.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch confirmed as much in her remarks at the Annual NY Charter School Conference earlier this month, and in today's New York Post (here).

I commented, in today's Post, that to successfully turn around existing failing schools means to essentially start-over. That is, new operators--be they charter school groups or anyone else--need to have the organizational flexibility to make necessary changes to bring success, rather than be stuck with the same impediments that contributed to the school's failure in the first place.

Furthermore, if charter school operators take over such schools, the charter cap will have to be lifted if these projects are counted as new charter schools, which they invariably should. This is because the Regents cap will be reached, or have come very close, by January. (NOTE: a new charter that ensures serving the same students in the district turnaround school could invoke the existing statutory "at-risk" enrollment preference.)

What if they were conversion charters, which don't count against the cap? A turnaround effort under the rules for a conversion charter will almost certainly fail. Currently, only six charter schools are converted from district schools, and these were successful to begin with, as they have a mission-driven school culture with exceptional leadership and faculty that sought charter autonomy.

School Essentials for Turnaround Success
Specifically, that would begin with establishing a mission-driven, results-oriented school culture focused on achievement and graduation to college. A turnaround project should include a revised, separate teachers contract or, better yet, no union contract at all; a do-over schedule with emphasis on Regents exam coursework; suitable facility space, including control over such space; ability to hire new personnel and hold them accountable; and start-up funding to ensure personnel and supplies are in place, to name a few examples.

In other words, a turnaround project needs to copy-cat the independence and flexibility that new charter schools have to achieve success. Last month, the study on New York City charter school performance by professors Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Sonali Murarka of the Wharton School at UPenn, listed the key characteristics common to charter schools that contributed to their higher academic outcomes compared to student performance in district schools. This study was discussed previously on The Chalkboard. These school characteristics leading to success included:

a) a mission emphasizing academic performance as opposed to other goals;
b) a longer school year;
c) greater number of minutes daily devoted to English;
d) a small rewards/small penalties discipline policy; and
e) performance-based teacher pay as opposed to a traditional pay scale based on seniority and credentials.

Challenge for State Ed. Department
In preparing the Race to the Top application, the state Education Department and Governor should not go wobbly. Yet sheepishness is apparent on charter schools at the moment. Going half-witted in a turnaround program by protecting the usual "constituencies" will lead to half-wit results, which means a failure and a waste of everyone's time and money.

Be bold, Chancellor Tisch, and unafraid. That will likely mean knocking over the tightly held systems in these schools slated for turnaround; and necessitate raising the charter cap to exploit the statutory freedoms of new charter schools.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.