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.

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