Monday, January 25, 2010

Massachusetts Education Reform: Innovation Schools

Last week, I outlined turnaround plans for under-performing schools as described in Massachusetts' most recent education reform. Today, I'd like to take a look at the brand new institution of "innovation schools."

An innovation school is a "public school, operating withing a public school district, that is established for the purpose of improving school performance and student achievement through increased autonomy and flexibility," and as such fills the gap between traditional public schools (which are fully under the policies of the local school district) and charter public schools (which are fully independent of the local school district). The flexibility granted an innovation school may be related to:

  • curriculum,
  • budget,
  • school schedule and calendar,
  • staffing policies and procedures,
  • school district policies and procedures, and
  • professional development.
Innovation schools may be either existing schools or new schools, may serve students from multiple school districts, or may be virtual (online) distance-learning programs.

Nearly anyone except private and parochial schools can submit an application to form an innovation school, including parents, teachers, and non-profit organizations. The applications are reviewed by the school committee (i.e. local school board), the local teachers' union, and the district superintendent. The application must include a school prospectus that outlines:
  • the overall vision of the school, including how the increased flexibility will help improve school performance and student achievement;
  • the specific needs or challenges the school will be designed to address;
  • the kind of autonomy and flexibility sought;
  • preliminary components of the school's innovation plan, to be developed in full by a stakeholder committee upon approval of the application;
  • the process that will be implemented to involve the appropriate stakeholders; and
  • a tentative timetable for developing and establishing the school.
Once the application has been approved, the applicant must promptly form an innovation plan committee of not more than 11 people chosen largely by the applicant, provided that it includes:
  • the applicant,
  • a representative of the superintendent,
  • a representative of the school committee,
  • a parent,
  • a principal of the school district, and
  • two teachers, one of whom is nominated by the local teachers' union.
The innovation plan describes how the school expects to improve school performance and student achievement, and must address: curriculum, budget, schedule, staffing (including recruitment, employment, evaluation, and compensation), policies and procedures, and professional development. The plan must include measurable annual goals with a variety of indicators, and should be based on student outcome data, to the extent practicable. The plan may optionally be implemented by an external partner.

The local school committee must hold at least one public hearing before voting whether or not to authorize the school for not more than five years. The school will then be evaluated annually by the district superintendent, and the school committee may amend the plan as necessary if the school fails to meet the goals set out in the innovation plan. If the school fails substantially to meet the plan's goals, the school committee can terminate the school's authorization (but not before the end of the school's third year). If the school meets its goals satisfactorily, school leadership may petition to renew the authorization for another period of not more than five years after convening a stakeholder committee to discuss potential revisions to the plan.

Additionally, the law requires the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education to:
  • provide planning and implementation grants for innovation schools,
  • provide technical assistance to applicants, and
  • collect and publish data and research relating to innovation schools, particularly about successful programs serving limited-English proficient students and other practices in innovation schools that could be adopted by other public schools.
The motivation behind the innovation schools reform seems to be the idea that some schools are locked into policies and procedures that are not optimal for meeting the challenges they face. For these schools, measures such as new leadership, new faculty, or supplemental educational services may not be as helpful as the opportunity to relax certain current policies in favor of something more amenable to their particular circumstances. The new innovation school provisions create an opportunity for schools to benefit from just this kind of flexibility. Moreover, since parents, teachers, universities, and community organizations can submit applications for innovation schools, reform no longer has to come from the top down, but can be initiated by those most intimate with the challenges or those highly experienced in meeting them; and since innovation plans must be developed with a variety of stakeholders, innovation schools will hopefully enjoy broad support and engagement from all directions (above, within, and without).

As with turnaround plans, the eventual success or failure of innovation schools will likely depend on whether workable solutions to the particular problems local school districts face can be identified and implemented by the innovation planners and school leaders. Hopefully, the technical assistance provided by the commissioner and expertise from external partners will provide an open conduit for fresh (and tested) ideas to increase local school capacity for improvement.

In any case, innovation schools and the turnaround plan procedures seem to be a much more reasonable approach to school improvement than the reform recently passed in California (SBX5 4, 2010 Cal. Stat. ch. 3), which includes the "parent trigger" first introduced in the Los Angeles school district. According to the new law, a petition with at least 50% of the parents of a school in corrective action under the No Child Left Behind Act forces the school district to implement one of the four school intervention models described in the Race to the Top regulations (Appendix C, Federal Register, v. 75, n. 221, p. 59828-30):
  • replacing the principal and at least half the staff, inter alia, ("turnaround model"),
  • reopening the school as a charter school or with external management ("restart model"),
  • closing the school altogether, or
  • replacing the principal and instituting a series of guided reforms ("transformation model").
But, beyond the "trigger," the law makes no provision for parent participation or any other stakeholder consultation in planning the subsequent school intervention, which is developed and carried out by the local school district alone. (More discussion about the measure is available here.) In contrast, the Massachusetts reform presents a much more collaborative (and less adversarial) model for school improvement, in which:
  • anyone with a beneficial idea has a platform to present it;
  • parents and other stakeholders participate throughout the planning process;
  • school teachers and administrators are not presented as the enemy;
  • plans are flexible enough to include small, but effective interventions or sweeping changes; and
  • self-evaluation through measurable annual goals and reports plays a prominent role.
I look forward to hearing about the new things to come in Massachusetts schools.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Massachusetts Education Reform: Turnaround Plans

Last Monday Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a new set of education reforms (SB 2247) into law. The three major portions of the law (1) expand powers of school district superintendents and the state commissioner of education for improving underachieving schools, (2) modify certain charter school provisions, and (3) establish brand new provisions for "innovation schools," which are something between traditional public schools and charter schools. A detailed list of what the law includes is available here. I'd like to focus for the moment on the new powers of the commissioner vis-a-vis underachieving schools, and will outline innovation schools in a subsequent post.

Since the Education Reform Act of 1993 (69 MGL 1J), the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has carried the responsibility to establish regulations concerning the determination of schools and districts that have failed to improve the quality of the education they provide. When a school was determined to be under-performing, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education was to appoint an independent fact-finding team to determine the causes of persistent under-performance, and the district was required to submit a remedial plan with "specific goals" for improvement, means for achieving them, and a proposed time-line. The school then had two years in which to implement the plan, with technical assistance from the commissioner. If at the end of two years, the school failed to demonstrate significant improvement, the school might receive a new principal, be allocated additional funds, dismiss teachers for good cause, or undergo "such other actions determined by the board of education, to be reasonably calculated to increase the number of students attending the school who satisfy the student performance standards."

The new reform spells out in much greater detail how plans for improving under-performing schools, dubbed "turnaround plans," will be developed, as well as what they should contain. There are also new consequences if schools fail to demonstrate long-term improvement under their turnaround plans, and new options to facilitate integrating external assistance into school management.

Once the commissioner deems a school is under-performing based on a variety of student performance indicators, the school's district superintendent, in consultation with the commissioner, has almost six months to develop a turnaround plan for the school to "maximize the rapid academic achievement of students." The development of the plan follows a series of well-defined steps, most of which can take no longer than a month and which are designed to incorporate the needs, values, and expertise of a number of different local stakeholders. This is accomplished by forming a committee of no more than 13 people who represent:

  • the state commissioner,
  • the school committee (i.e. local school board),
  • the teachers' union,
  • the school administration,
  • the school's teachers,
  • parents,
  • social services,
  • workforce development agencies,
  • early childhood (for primary) or higher education (for secondary schools), and
  • the community.
(Unfortunately, it seems they left out the most vested stakeholders of all: the students.)

The stakeholder group submits recommendations to the superintendent, who then drafts a plan, giving "due consideration to [the stakeholder group's] recommendations." The plan is sent to the stakeholder group, the school committee, and the state superintendent for comment. After making receiving further recommendations and making any necessary modifications, the superintendent sends the final plan to the commissioner. The entire process, including stakeholder group meetings, recommendations, and plan drafts, will be open to the public.

The law specifies that the turnaround plan should include:
  • steps to address social service and health needs of students and their families, to help students arrive and remain at school ready to learn;
  • steps to improve child welfare services and, as appropriate, law enforcement services in the school community, in order to promote a safe and secure learning environment;
  • steps to improve workforce development services provided to students and their families, to provide them with meaningful employment skills and opportunities;
  • steps to address achievement gaps for limited English-proficient, special education, and low-income students;
  • alternative English language learning programs;
  • a financial plan; and
  • an outline of measurable annual goals for improvement.
The legislation doesn't mandate any particular strategy for school improvement (since the particular strategies should be selected to suit the particular challenges the school faces), but it does provide a non-exhaustive list of potential strategies, including:
  • adjusting the curriculum,
  • reallocating or securing additional funds,
  • increasing salaries "to attract or retain highly-qualified administrators, or teachers or to reward administrators, or teachers who work in under-performing schools that achieve the annual goals set forth,"
  • expanding the school day or year,
  • having the entire staff re-apply for their jobs,
  • modifying district policies or collective bargaining agreements,
  • supplying greater in-service professional development for teachers or administrators,
  • increasing teacher planning and collaboration time, and
  • searching for and studying best school and instructional practices.
The superintendent can choose to appoint an "external receiver" to operate the school and implement the plan, or to assist with its implementation. (But, the school committee can appeal this decision to the commissioner.) This external receiver is "a nonprofit entity or an individual with a demonstrated record of success in improving low-performing schools or the academic performance of disadvantaged students."

The turnaround plan is authorized for no more than three years, with annual review. If the school fails to meet the planned goals, the superintendent may modify the plan, or the commissioner may appoint an external examiner to evaluate the plan's implementation. If at the end of the plan the school has not significantly improved, the plan may be renewed for no more than three more years, or the commissioner may designate the school as "chronically under-performing," in which case the procedure is followed to develop a new turnaround plan under the direction of the state commissioner (instead of the local superintendent). The commissioner may have the superintendent implement the new plan, send a targeted assistance team to help the superintendent implement the plan, or select an external receiver. If after twelve years (two three-year periods under the superintendent and two three-year periods under the commissioner) the school still has not significantly improved, then heaven help us.

The turnaround-plan reform for under-performing schools makes great strides in:
  • setting up a framework for developing plans for school improvement,
  • incorporating more voices into plan development,
  • increasing transparency and opportunities for public engagement,
  • broadening the focus of improvement plans to include consider more than instruction, and
  • increasing opportunity to bring in outside assistance in achieving goals.
However, the long-term success or failure of the reform will crucially depend on whether superintendents (and the commissioner) can indeed identify (and implement) effective solutions to the problems undergirding low achievement. If the strategies they select are inadequate, no plan, however beautifully constructed, will lead to sufficient improvement. Thus, the next step in complete education reform will be to study schools that are achieving significant gains and open channels for their stories to reach struggling schools, in Massachusetts and across the nation.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System

The Delaware Department of Education announced last month agreements with the American Institutes for Research to develop a new computer-adaptive Comprehensive Assessment System, including summative assessments of reading and math in grades 3-8; end-of-course exams for English, math, and science; and formative assessments in reading and math for grades 2-10. The assessments for all grade levels will be on a common scale for longitudinal study of students' learning growth over time. The press release suggests a very rapid development time-table: AIR is to pilot test the system this spring for full operation next Fall! Developing such a large item bank, as well as all of the associated computer software (perhaps AIR already has the delivery system in place), and ensuring the technical adequacy in all schools (which is, I suppose, a bit easier given Delaware's size) seems to be a tall order for a single year. If Delaware can pull it off, DCAS will be a major step forward for state-wide student assessment that is timely, efficient, and relevant for local instructional decisions. In an informal survey I completed two years ago, only a few states were experimenting with computer-based testing, and those that had operational systems were using them mainly only for end-of-course examinations. Oregon was using a computer-adaptive test for a while, but gave it up for a reason that escapes me at the moment (it may have been pressure from the US ED). In any case, I look forward to seeing what Delaware achieves, and hope the "First State" can serve as a model for twenty-first century student assessment.