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School reform: Sens. Franken, Alexander bridge turnaround gulf

On Wednesday I wrote about a visit Sen. Al Franken paid to Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis’ Victory neighborhood on Tuesday. I want to expand on something I sketched in overly quick strokes because I lacked the time to report the details: The possible significance of a seemingly obscure, tough-to-understand win the senator seems to have scored in the recent markup of the Senate’s proposed overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

Sen. Al Franken
Courtesy of Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken

Franken said the word “bipartisan victory” about 27 times during the two hours we spent at Patrick Henry, and at the time I was hard-pressed to see it. He made a point of coming across the room to talk to me at the end of the trip to try to amplify what turns out to be a very complex point and to offer me some resources.

Yesterday, after a handful of phone calls and a trip into the education policy wayback machine, I figured it out. When Franken said “bipartisan victory,” I think what he really meant to say was, “Hey — I snatched something meaningful from the jaws of the Tea Party but the details are too subtle for this soundbite-centric situation.”

Educators, in particular those in struggling school districts in outstate Minnesota, have struggled mightily with the provision of NCLB that mandates that schools that persistently underperform undergo radical “turnarounds.”

Rigid prescriptions
The problem isn’t so much the turnarounds per se as the fact that the 10-year-old law is quite rigid in laying out exactly how the overhauls should occur, but too often its prescriptions for change have proven ineffective or worse.

For example, under one of the prescribed models a failing school must get a new principal, who must replace at least half the staff. The rationale — staff the school with a team that wants to be there and wants to pull in the same direction — is reasonable enough. But it’s a practical nightmare in a rural community where the supply of educators is finite.

Turnarounds can play out in other unreasonable ways, too. A year and a half ago, the principal of Brooklyn Center’s lone high school, who was making great strides toward closing the achievement gap, lost his job because the program failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress — the NCLB measure policymakers on both sides of the aisle agree needs to go.

Adding insult to injury, when districts like Minneapolis Public Schools — where some schools have been turned around multiple times — come up with interventions that work better, their hands are tied.

And yet, as Franken pointed out at Patrick Henry, the feds have to require that something be done about the nation’s worst-performing schools. Without an ugly stick hanging over their heads, some administrators might quietly tiptoe back to the era where lots of head-shaking and tsk’ing was often followed by total inaction.

Between Duncan and conservatives
Here, then, is the victory that didn’t quite get recounted in Victory: Last week when the NCLB overhaul was debated by the Senate committee charged with its first draft, Franken and Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander bridged the gulf between U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his more conservative committee cohorts and created — wait for it — a bipartisan compromise.

Sen. Lamar Alexander
Sen. Lamar Alexander

Really. And one that might actually help make things better for kids who attend terrible schools.

Duncan, of course, would like to continue to require schools to choose from a menu of fixed turnaround options, but a different, expanded menu. Senate GOPers, for their part, would prefer the federal government get out of the business of telling states how to do things, and indeed out of education altogether.

The compromise includes the set menu and eliminates the mandate for using it for the vast majority of schools. More notably, it includes a supposed turnaround model that’s really more of a reform buffet.

The “whole school reform” strategy, as Education Week explained it, “allows districts to create their own turnaround plans — but only using programs and interventions that have demonstrated statistically significant improvements in student outcomes on ‘more than one well-designed or well-implemented experimental or quasi-experimental study.’ ”

Whole school reform
Whole school reform, if I understand it right, is a concept that gained some traction nationally a decade ago only to be wiped off the map by NCLB and its turnaround mandates. The concept was to re-envision the whole school — including assumptions about what “school” means — and use best practices to create an organic overhaul plan.

There is some research suggesting the strategy had promise and, I fear, a dearth of the kind of time-consuming research underpinning the strategies our hometown reformers see working in one place and want to replicate. But there is money in the bill to fund innovations that might or might not stand the test of empirical scrutiny. 

And more to the point, so long as there is evidence of their efficacy, MPS can take elements that work at one of its struggling schools and incorporate them into a holistic strategy for turning around others. In addition to demonstrating the tactics are backed by research, administrators must show that their kit bag of interventions and restructuring adds up to a whole.

Back to that bipartisan victory. Given the tension between the federalists and Duncan’s desire to draft the menu, Franken can probably claim bragging rights, even if explaining why takes more than 30 seconds.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/27/2011 - 01:29 pm.

    I wish with all my heart that this was a good thing for public schools, but honestly I don’t see it.

    It’s clear the NCLB has failed in MPS and SPPS, but nothing else has worked either; both districts have been trending downward in any metric you might choose to look at for the past 20 years, and there is no sign of a light at the end.

    I have to believe, because it follows their well established pattern, that if these districts are given an ala carte menu of reforms from which to choose, they’ll pick the ones with the most cash attached to the least strings every time.

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