March 2, 2010

Schools are failing – and kids are counting on us to get it right

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If a school is failing, how do you fix it? Can you fix it without admitting anything is wrong with the teaching? How about the leadership? The district administration? The parents or the students? Whose fault is it anyway?

Schools on a list of the state’s lowest performing schools are in line to get some big federal dollars. President Obama this week announced he has $900 million in new federal grants available to school districts willing to take aggressive steps to fix their struggling institutions, or close them. That $900 million is on top of $4 billion in federal grants in the “Race to the Top” fund aimed at improving education nationwide. That program will make about $50 million available to Washington schools judged to be among the lowest 5 percent in student achievement.

Obama said the new federal aid would be available to the districts that are home to the 2,000 schools that produce more than half of the nation’s dropouts.

But the fix has to include some big admissions of failure – the school districts must agree to take at least one of these steps: firing the principal and at least half the staff of a troubled school; reopening it as a charter school, which is not legal under Washington law; or closing the school  and transferring students to higher performing schools in the district. 

According to a story in the Seattle Times, the Tacoma Schools superintendent is proposing to close one middle school, replace the principals and at least half the staff at two others, and transform the fourth.

Some struggling Washington schools will aim for a “transformative” approach, including tougher teacher evaluations, more learning time for students, the Times reports. Those include Highline, Marysville and Seattle.
In Highline, Marysville and Seattle, school officials say they intend to use the transformation approach.

The good news is, the Obama administration is trying. And by putting money where it counts, the president is bringing school districts along.

It makes some school bureaucracies quail when the president does things like applaud a Rhode Island superintendent who decided to fire the entire staff at a Central Falls High School, which has a 48 percent graduation rate.

“Our kids get only one chance at an education and we need to get it right,” he said, quoted in a New York Times story.

The Seattle teachers union voted last week to adopt the transformative approach over the option of replacing half the staff, the Times’ Linda Shaw reported, “following what union president Olga Addae described as a robust debate.

“If you displaced 50 percent of the staff, it would look like we are saying that the teachers are the problem,” she said.

In some cases, teachers are part of the problem. In others, societal problems like poverty.  family disruption and racial discrimination are part of the mix. 

But as the president said, we adults may have time to work it out. The kids don’t. It’s their one shot. We need to get it right – for their sakes.

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