Get under the bus?

In education reform, the feds are dealing a high-stakes game, and cash-poor states are hard-pressed not to play

Aug 4, 2010 at 5:00 am
Get under the bus?
Photo by Ron Jasin

Unless you’re a political junkie, policy wonk or highly motivated parent of school-age children, chances are you don’t realize the nation is (yet again) in the midst of an ambitious and high-minded (supposed) round of education reform.

It is called Race to the Top, and it comes with a huge carrot ($4.35 billion overall) and a possibly larger stick (coercive guidelines that merely improve a state’s chances of receiving money but don’t guarantee a dime).

Kentucky was one of 16 finalists in the first application round, but only Delaware ($100 million) and Tennessee ($500 million) got money. Kentucky also made the list of Phase 2 finalists, announced last week, that are pursuing the remaining $3.4 billion, though Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says the state’s chances are iffy because it lacks charter schools.

Race to the Top is the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which funds primary and secondary education but prohibits the establishment of a national educational curriculum. The legislation has had various pithy monikers through the years, dreamt up by whichever president was in office — Bill Clinton called it Improving America’s Schools, and George W. Bush dubbed it No Child Left Behind. Typically Congress reauthorizes the act every five years. When Congress considers another renewal next year, it will be talking about Race to the Top.

Race to the Top is the brainchild of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who modeled it on work he did as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. The program seems like No Child Left Behind on steroids — the zealous and narrow focus on reading and math scores remains, but it’s now backed by provisions to force school districts to close or semi-privatize a failing school or summarily replace its principal and 50 percent of its teachers.

Race to the Top and the related School Improvement Grants are funded by the federal stimulus package. The grants are a longstanding part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in which money flows through state education departments to the local level, but with the stimulus dramatically increasing available funds, the program has taken on more prominence. Specifically, the application guidelines force states to identify their most academically challenged schools, then commit to fixing them largely on the fed’s terms. The idea is to flood the worst schools with money, flush out the problems, including personnel, and start fixing things fast.

When Kentucky identified its first group of 10 persistently low-performing schools — five impoverished schools and five that don’t meet that threshold as defined by the percentage of students receiving free and reduced meals — the list included six schools in Jefferson County.

Those schools are now part of a great social experiment, which author and education historian Diane Ravitch, writing in The Los Angeles Times, says is being pushed with “confidence bordering on recklessness.”

Dusk has nearly settled, and Houston Barber sits on the back deck of his family’s eastern Jefferson County home, winding down after a day of “turnaround training.” Barber is the principal at Fern Creek High School, which made the list; the two-week training session is meant to help school leaders who kept their jobs figure out where to go from here.

He is tall and angular, handsome and easygoing. Despite holding a demanding job, he looks much younger than 34.

Barber and his wife, Darra, have three children. His two sons are about ready for bed, and their dad, still wearing a white dress shirt and loosened red tie, doles out a few gummy bears and puts an arm around each child.

If bureaucratic initiatives such as Race to the Top, by their nature, produce a certain number of unintended consequences, Fern Creek seems a perfect case in point.

Legislation passed last year, House Bill 176, meant to take the baton from the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 and better position the state to receive federal money, determined the state would identify its list of 10 lowest-performing schools and make them the first ones targeted for radical improvement. Senate Bill 1 included provisions to replace the old accountability system, meaning test scores from the spring of 2009 would have, in effect, been moot.

Except they weren’t. Kentucky needed to cite test data in its Race to the Top application. Further, the state applied for and received a waiver allowing it to submit only last year’s scores, instead of the customary average of two years’ worth of scores.

The spring 2009 tests counted after all.

Fern Creek — which isn’t considered Title I, or impoverished — has four magnet programs: visual and performing arts, communication and media, analytical and applied sciences, and leadership and social sciences. The school has a TV station, radio station and film department. It’s developed partnerships with businesses such as WBKI-TV and WDJX-FM, and had the Louisville Orchestra in residency last year. It has an active alumni organization that has raised more than $1 million for the school over the past 10 years, which has paid for things like a piano lab and a program to prep students for the ACT college entrance exam.

Barber says Fern Creek leaders implored students to take the tests seriously, but to no avail. Their on-demand writing scores were among the top five in Jefferson County, but those don’t matter in the context of school reform. Only two measures do — a combined average of reading and math — and Fern Creek’s respectable reading scores weren’t good enough to compensate for horrible math scores, a persistent problem that predates Barber’s arrival.

The state sent audit teams to analyze the 10 “worst” schools and make recommendations. The School Improvement Grants program has a new focus on four options: the “turnaround” model, in which a principal is replaced and no more than half of the teachers are retained; “restart,” in which an outside firm takes over; “closure”; and “transformation” (the principal goes and the district steps up its involvement in areas such as professional development for teachers).

Several weeks passed before word came that Fern Creek should opt for the turnaround model. Twenty-nine teachers would be asked to move on. The school’s site-based decision-making council, a key part of KERA, would be disbanded. And, despite the audit’s many positive comments about Barber — “During the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years, the principal participated in the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education project ... (and) received proficient ratings in forty of forty-two categories,” the report notes — he would be replaced as well.

The close-knit community in southern Jefferson County was agog, and the media crackled with damning stories of failure. The world closed in on Barber, who had just returned from Florida, where Fern Creek’s ROTC team won a national competition for the 11th-straight year.

He avowed his students’ poor math performance but also believed good things were happening at Fern Creek: Kids were excited about the magnet programs. One graduate got into MIT and another into Carnegie Mellon. And, after the shoddy scores of 2009, he’s nearly certain the renewed focus on math will bear out in the 2010 results, which come out in September.

Barber admits it was a trying time, but he knew he’d survive. It’s a lesson he learned in January 2008, soon after he took the job, when his son, Preston, was diagnosed with cancer and given a near-zero chance of surviving. But Preston received a full bone marrow transplant and is now cancer-free. Barber has great faith.

He pushed back and discovered principals can’t be forced out if they’ve been on the job less than three years. He kept his position.

Brian Miller, Fern Creek’s executive director of alumni affairs and community relations, called it a near miss and says it would have been tragic for the school if Barber had been let go. “Those (test) numbers need to come up,” he says, “but as a school alumni base, to be called ‘failing’ and ‘underperforming,’ we know we have been painted with an incorrect brush.”

Tim Fries, a St. Xavier graduate whose family resides in the Fern Creek district, agreed. Fries was a frequent visitor to the school’s site-based decision-making meetings and has taken an interest in school matters. “I could send my kids anywhere, but they wanted to go to Fern Creek,” he says. “I believe they can get as good of an education here as anywhere in Jefferson County, including private schools. It has worked really well for us.”

With his gray-tinged ponytail and wispy facial hair, Keith Look looks like he could be on the road selling tofu wraps outside of Phish shows. He is tall and thin, with piercing brown eyes and a deep voice.

The 38-year-old got into education almost by accident. In 1994, he joined Teach For America, a program founded in 1990 to recruit recent college graduates and professionals to teach two years in low-income communities. Freshly armed with a degree from Centre College, he ended up in urban Baltimore, and after one year at his school, attrition had made him a senior staffer. He got a walkie-talkie. He saw firsthand how good teachers in turnaround schools got overlooked because of external pressures and negative assumptions.

He realized he liked education but lacked pedagogical chops, so he inquired about an urban-focused doctoral program at Penn, unaware of the school’s lofty status. He impressed the powers-that-be there and got his graduate work paid for. With an Ivy League PhD, he went to work in inner-city Philadelphia schools before returning to Louisville in 2003 to become the principal of Meyzeek Middle School in Smoketown.

In 2008, he became principal at Shawnee High School, once a venerable part of the West End, but now the lowest-performing school in the state. Look’s job also was on the line, but the audit team endorsed changes already under way at Shawnee, and he was retained.

Look is candid about the school’s challenges but hyper-motivated to turn it around. The building has a new name — The Academy at Shawnee — and it’s been completely reorganized in an effort to personalize the school and better target learning needs as it becomes K-12. It will add an engineering program and eventually energy technology while beefing up its aviation and Naval Junior ROTC magnet programs. Attendance is up, discipline problems are down, and the school’s signature partnership with the University of Louisville School of Education has been effective.

Look also has numerous ideas for re-engaging with the community. He’s retooling sports, once a point of pride, and oversees an impressive indoor swimming pool that’s open to the public. He has ideas for introducing professional drama into the school auditorium, which oozes old-school charm. And when the city of Radcliff decided it could no longer afford its fancy space module, The Challenger Learning Center, Shawnee Magnet Coordinator Will Vander Meer suggested moving it to Shawnee. The district backed the plan, and it soon will open for interactive, high-tech field trips that will make kids think they’re at a NASA facility.

Look also wields impressive PR skills. After the national trade publication Education Week ran a story about the turnaround plan at Louisville’s Western Middle School, he got approval to pitch having the publication cover Shawnee’s turnaround efforts throughout the upcoming school year. Education Week accepted, and the second installment is out this week.

The school battles a serious stigma. At 41st and Market, several blocks west of the Watterson Expressway, Shawnee is far off the beaten path. Meyzeek is more familiar territory to parents who work downtown, and families with greater means helped foster diversity there and can be more involved bacuse of proximity. That’s a larger challenge for Shawnee, and data shows such isolation is a significant challenge for turning a school around.

Public education exists at a weird confluence of politics, academics, sociology, economics and psychology. It is the realm of constant cataclysmic rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky promises. It involves the lives of many people. Teaching in public schools, the axiom says, is a thankless job made worse by the nation’s social ills, and superintendents have the shelf life of baking soda. The myriad conundrums seem intractable and impenetrable.

A seemingly little-understood fact is that education funding is largely a state and local issue; typically less than 10 percent comes from the federal government. Still, when the feds do throw big money on the table in the midst of an economic meltdown, states are hard-pressed to turn away, though some states have (Indiana and Texas, to name two). Kentucky was in from the get-go, and if some talented people had to get thrown under the bus in the process, it seemed like necessary collateral damage.

One problem is that in a world dominated by research and data, there’s no empirical evidence showing that firing teachers and principals leads to long-term success. Look likens the new reform effort to building an airplane while flying it. Bob Rodosky, Jefferson County Public Schools executive director for accountability, research and planning, has similar concerns.

“The one thing that sorta bothers me — I was on some committees to help develop the accountability system after KERA passed,” Rodosky says. “It was designed to have continuous progress, so even if you have a kid improve from ‘novice’ to ‘apprentice,’ you got credit for it. The new system, under (School Improvement Grants) and House Bill 176, you must be proficient or you get no credit at all.

“That’s one thing I think is not very good — the idea of growth isn’t in this system. This is sort of a status report on where a kid is on a given day. We do have to hold people accountable, but we think accountability needs to be based on growth…

“We must make sure whatever that solution is, it’s more than math and reading. We have to look at the whole child, including social and emotional development.”

Much is left to be sorted out, and what Congress will authorize remains to be seen. In the meantime, schools like Fern Creek and Shawnee are forced to cooperate.

A recent Newsweek cover story, “The Creativity Crisis,” posits that American schoolchildren are becoming less creative, and suggests the unrelenting emphasis on standardized testing might be the cause.

While acceding to the notion that test scores are important, Barber and Look concur with that thesis. Both principals believe schools must teach kids how to live in the world as it is, though they know full well they must also teach to the test because those are the rules of the day.

There could be a silver lining to the imposed turnaround plans. Barber and Look were able to aggressively recruit replacement teachers, and fears that they’d only attract novices and cast-offs proved unfounded. They have recruited several high performers who’ve taken pay cuts to become part of the resurrection effort and are glad to have trimmed some deadwood in the process. And, provided they follow the guidelines, the schools will get about $440,000 annually over the next three years through School Improvement Grants.

But the challenges remain. Fern Creek has seen an influx of lower-achieving students from outside its “resides” area. Though considered a traditional school, it doesn’t have the option, as Male and Manual do, of turning away applicants. Nearly 500 students who live in Fern Creek’s district attend Male or Manual.

Shawnee has the aviation magnet, where a student can actually earn a pilot’s license. Part of the JCPS strategy to make various schools attractive, in the context of its school-assignment plan, involved creating such innovative programs. But Shawnee is still located at 41st and Market.

In the end, state and federal education officials remain resolute in the face of criticism, arguing matter-of-factly that drastic problems call for drastic measures.

Barber and Look don’t quibble. They are determined to succeed for the kids.