Finding the Best Road to School Reform

By Cynthia McCabe

March 4, 2010 – It grabbed headlines around the country: Seventy two teachers and staffers at Central Falls High in Rhode Island fired by the school board at the superintendent’s behest, for reasons many would argue were beyond their control.

Now imagine a different headline capturing national attention: Teachers, school board and superintendent work together to boost student achievement. (And there are indications today that talks may resume between Central Falls district officials and teachers.)

With school reform approaching a crossroads – as impending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act meets today’s announcement of finalists for $4 billion in competitive School Improvement Grants – now is the time to develop the most effective plans for increasing student achievement.

That exact work is occurring today in New York, as professional educators, superintendents and school board members gather for the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign forum. Their goal? Figure out the smartest way to raise student achievement in the country’s lowest-performing schools. (Click here to read more about the forum.) In short, figure out a way to do reform the right way, not the Rhode Island way.

“Approaches that point the finger at educators do nothing to bring about substantive improvements for students,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.  “To the contrary, it provides a momentary perception of correcting a problem. “

What does work is collaboration among school employees, management, parents and communities.

The firing of the Central Falls High teachers came after Superintendent Frances Gallo decided abruptly to enact the “turnaround” model included as one of four reform options in the School Improvement Grant program. Under the program, schools must either close, restart as a charter, collaborate with the union and other stakeholders to improve, or fire the principal and at least half the staff.

NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign seeks to bring together all public education stakeholders in communities around the country. When enacted, plans developed in this effort will improve the lives of tens of thousands of the country’s neediest students.

The campaign’s work will focus on the “transformation” reform model outlined in the School Improvement Grant program. That model requires comprehensive instructional changes and other collaborative improvement strategies.

It’s working in places like Broad Acres Elementary in Montgomery County, Maryland. Broad Acres was the district’s lowest performing school until the superintendent, teachers and other stakeholders began collaborating on everything from curriculum to school operations. In just two years, second grade reading scores increased by 18 percent and math by 30 percent.

For older students, NEA’s 12-Point Action Plan for Reducing the School Dropout Rate includes such tactics as increasing individual attention, creating smaller learning communities, expanding graduation options and increasing workforce readiness programs. NEA has partnered with America’s Promise Alliance to host and support dropout prevention summits across the country. NEA also offers a publication for educators to use as a resource to increase graduation rates.

Comprehensive, collaborative plans, not pink slips, will be the way forward to turning around the nation’s schools.

“We must examine the factors that contribute to low performing schools,” Van Roekel said. “We must provide the kind of resources and programs needed for students to succeed.”

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    03/05/10 – Iowa Gerry

    Visited grandkids public elementary school in rural Iowa. School children attended to their work, lined up when necessary, didn’t bully or make fun of others, seemed to understand and follow a routine, helped their peers, displayed joy in their work, took individual instruction well (including correction) and seemed to be learning and understanding more. This kind of schoolwide “environment” seems to be baseline to reform.

    03/05/10 – Eric

    Well I can’t speak to the reasons why some schools fail, but I can give an opinion as to how we begin to reconcile these problems. I think the article hits two of them right on the head; smaller classes with more interaction and increased “stakeholder” positions (aka getting parents off their butts).

    03/04/10 – Kendra

    I was appalled when I heard about the school firings in Rhode Island. I don’t know the details, so I don’t know if it was warranted or not. But, it is crazy to think that such action would greatly improve student performance. It is CRITICAL that all stakeholders – teachers AND district leadership AND parents all play apart in developing plans for improvement. It can’t be done alone; everyone needs to be on the same page, understand the expectations, set realistic goals, and come up with ways to achieve those goals. On the flip side, those at low performing schools need to step up. If you need help ASK for it… don’t let the sinking ship go down without a fight. Somebody has to be a leader. Kudos for Maryland for bringing everyone to the table. THIS is what we need to hear about in the news, NOT the mass-firing of an entire school. Stay positive!