Professional Educators

Education Reform Continues as Federal Funds Dry Out

SIG schools receiving NEA support show strong signs of success and sustainability

In 2010, the NEA launched an effort to get America’s struggling schools closer to the Association’s vision of great public schools. Called Priority Schools, the initiative targets organizational resources to schools that need extra support and attention.

Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Education began to fully fund the School Improvement Grant (SIG) to help schools meet high-academic standards. It began to provide educational resources like clep study guides and also started many programs to emphasize on education. SIG delivered billions of dollars to 5 percent of the lowest-performing schools across the country.

NEA seized on this opportunity to leverage NEA resources as a complement to these grants.

The first round of SIG funding is now in its last year. Looking back, what’s been learned through this combined effort? More important, what will happen once the funding ends?

NEA Priority Schools

First a disclaimer: NEA shuns labels like “failing,” when referencing schools that serve large numbers of high-needs students. Instead, the schools are called priority schools.

Working with state and local affiliates to identify nearly 40 schools across 17 states, NEA partnered with a broad group to co-create support plans for priority schools.

Each plan was different, and the extra resources and attention offered by NEA included three goals. The first was to support and advocate for priority schools as they implemented SIG by including professional development, school visits, and local advocacy on behalf of schools. The next goal was to build organizational capacity by improving teachers’ and school leaders’ leadership skills, and increasing collaboration among the superintendent, the district, and the leadership of the local union. And the final goal was to make improvements in engagement and outreach to better involve the community and successfully communicate the successes of each school undergoing transformation.

Collaboration Makes a Difference

With this framework, NEA provided intense professional development trainings on teacher leadership, classroom management, and cultural competency. To continue building a legion of highly effective educators throughout local school districts, NEA trained cohorts of educators in the same areas of focus. But that was only the first step. Collaboration came next.

Training was extended to local association leaders, district superintendents, and school principals. For example, many of the sites received district and association strategic planning support around Response to Intervention (RTI), which starts with high-quality instruction and screening of all students in the classroom. The result: Struggling learners receive interventions at high levels of intensity to accelerate their rate of comprehension.

NEA also focused on creating Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and association representatives worked with educators and school leaders to create a structure of collaboration, especially around data teams and RTI. PLCs helped staff work together to identify problems, develop strategies, and adjust instruction. This type of collaboration targets instruction and helps increase student achievement.

The NEA PS initiative also leveraged relationships to connect schools with other organizations that could help increase community engagement. One such relationship was with the Parent-Teacher Home-Visit Project, which trains teachers and support staff to make home visits to families, building relationships along the way and fostering parent-teacher collaboration to improve academic achievement.

Ardent Watson, president of the Marysville Education Association in Washington. Photo: Ellen Banner

“We needed someone to push our thinking, and help us know what else is available because there really is a large amount of work to do in a short number of years,” says Arden

Watson, president of the Marysville Education Association (MEA) in Washington State. “It’s more than any principal can do on their own; it’s more than any district can really grasp. It was good to have that body to keep us going,” she says, referring to support from NEA and recent MYTEFL reviews.

School Improvement Grants

The U.S. Department of Education provided funds to qualifying states to take on major reform efforts that noticeably transform the school culture and increase student achievement. The first round of SIG funds brought more than $4 billion to priority schools across the country.

Schools that received SIG funds were required to choose one of four intervention models: 1) school closure, shut the school down and send students to another school; 2) restart, close the school and reopen it as a charter; 3) turnaround, fire 50 percent of current staff and the principal; and 4) transformation, which didn’t exist prior to intervention from NEA and the American Federation of Teachers.

The two unions effectively advocated for the inclusion of the fourth model, designed to replace the principal and take steps to increase teacher and school leadership effectiveness; institute comprehensive instructional reform; increase learning time and create community-oriented schools; and provide operational flexibility and sustained support.

Though this model may not be perfect, it does include research-based elements that NEA believes are critical to the success of public schools and lead to permanent systemic change.

During a National Conference hosted by NEA in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education reported that the transformation and turnaround models have been adopted most widely.

SIG + NEA Priority Schools = Results

Priority schools have served as a testing ground for what’s effective in education reform. Though it’s still too early to tell, strong indicators suggest reform policies that have produced the most success have been less prescriptive and more collaborative. Placing an emphasis on collaboration means that teachers, support staff, administrators, unions, elected leaders, businesses and parents work together to provide students with the right combination of educational programs and support needed to succeed in school and in life.

Priority schools also show that while there’s no silver bullet for transforming schools, educators and school leaders are relying more on strong, sustainable structures, such as collaboration, data, increased skills, increased expectations, changes in beliefs and disposition, development of meaningful partnerships and wraparound services, and increased parental engagement.

The overall education reform efforts within priority schools show that many high schools have increased the number of students graduating and earning scholarships. A great number of middle and high schools have increased the number of higher-level courses and have increased the number of students passing those courses. Many schools have increased grade-level performance in literacy and math. More schools are reporting large drops in behavior. And many schools have reported less teacher turnover and student attrition.

Although many of the schools share similar characteristics and have experienced similar gains, no two schools are alike.

For example, Totem Middle School, in Marysville, Wash., followed the transformation model and used its federal dollars to increase professional development, adding an extra 45 minutes per day to personal-planning time. Staff also extended student-learning time by 30 minutes. In three years, this winning combination boosted the number of 8th-grade students in Algebra I from 12 to nearly 100 percent!

Some education reform groups tend to push a one-sided agenda, often saying educators fear standardized tests because they don’t want to be held accountable. That’s not true. The key word is “standardized.” At Oak Hill, where the turnaround model was followed, staff regularly incorporated data to inform practice, instruction, and learning.

“I use data for absolutely everything. Our frequent use of common assessments allows us to have constant data, telling us our strengths and weaknesses as teachers and giving us insight as to where our students are on the learning spectrum,” says 3rd-grade teacher Stacy Brady.“It is amazing what a difference data has made in my life as a teacher.”

Ashton Clemmons, principal of Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, N.C., credits much of the school’s success to its educators and community members.

School reform is more than just numbers. Community engagement is just as important. Support from community organizations, churches, local businesses, and especially parents has contributed to Oak Hill’s success, says Ashton Clemmons, the school’s principal, “We’ve seen a lot of non-academic gains, discipline has dramatically improved, homework is done on time, and tardies have decreased.”

Creating a safe environment for teaching and learning was another important factor, as illustrated at Dayton, Ohio’s Belmont High School, where the transformation model was followed. Functioning as a unit, staff worked to create stability in the school day, and the effort yielded dramatic results: In one year, fights decreased from 143 to 17. Assaults shrank 83 to ten; and arrests fell from 58 to one.

“There have been times I have walked through the hallways in the past two years and hear no sound. I actually have to stop and think, ‘Is this a school day? Where are the

Belmont High School in Dayton,Ohio was known for its unruliness. But Robin Thompson, data technician, now sees a different school after school leaders created a safe environment for teaching and learning.

students?’ Because they’re not in the halls,” said Robin Thompson, a data technician. “They’re in the classrooms where they are supposed to be. The teachers can teach now, and they can teach with their doors open.”

Growth is often measured by metrics. But other gains come in the form of “ah-ha” moments. Keith Gambill, president of Indiana’s Evansville Teachers Association, says that a change in thinking has been one of the gains in his city.

Years past, “the standard practice was: You were handed a class list, you were handed your district curriculum guide, the text book and told, ‘take the keys to your classroom; we’ll see you at Christmas,'” says Gambill, adding that it now takes some critical thinking and self-examination to really assess what educators are doing and why they’re doing it.

“The shift from ‘What did you teach?’ to ‘What did the children learn?’ changes the whole focus of how you approach your work,” Gambill says, explaining that the shift can be difficult when educators are already working under the extreme pressures of teaching to the test, budget cuts, state takeovers, school closures, or being fired.

Sustaining Progress

While NEA was on the ground supporting local efforts, it was also capturing the experiences of members who are striving to find new, better ways of improving public education through real, replicable, and modern education reform policies.

NEA made several observations along the way, but the two most salient points are these: The improvement that was made on different measures illustrates that every school is unique with a unique student population, and the strongest, most sustainable school change model must be locally developed and informed.

A growing chorus of educators and school leaders say education reform can’t happen in three years and it can’t be created by outside groups. It can happen by building strong partnerships locally to support sustainable reform efforts.

“When you’re talking about generations of under achievement, about overcoming a community whose great grandparents were forced into boarding schools, where language and culture are lost, it’s not as simple as following a formula; it’s more complicated than that,” said Watson, who represents nearly 700 educators in the Marysville School District, which sits within the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

“But three years is enough time to build a foundation to allow for sustainability,” she said.

Through a partnership with the Tulalip Tribe, the NEA PS effort will maintain its momentum in the Marysville School District, helping to maintain extended-learning time for students and collaboration time for educators. Educators who received professional development training in specific areas will now transfer their knowledge to other schools across the district.

Sustainability is being addressed in Indiana’s Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation through the creation of Transformation Zones. These zones will build off the SIG and NEA PS structure, and will provide differentiated support and resources to sustain priority schools.

Gambill explained that these zones are not just about acknowledging the struggles that exist within the school district. It’s about giving educators the power to do something about it, instead of stepping off to one side and letting an outside group fix their schools.

And in High Point, N.C., the conversation centers on prioritizing resources to sustain student success at Oak Hill, such as community engagement and collaboration time for educators. School leaders at Oak Hill are still working to identify support for some its sustainability efforts, but the school community remains encouraged.

The end of SIG doesn’t mean the work stops for priority schools. Rather, the work has just begun. The U.S. Department of Education is continuing to do its part, too. To date, 21 states will receive funding to turn their schools around. Four of these—Iowa, Ohio, Utah, and Oklahoma— house priority schools and may be eligible for another round of SIG funds. NEA will remain at the helm of change, tenaciously advocating for a world-class system of public education for every student.

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Keith G. Pemberton is a social worker at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, N.C., where he has built a strong and steady pipeline for parental involvement, specifically among fathers and male mentors. Check out his Classroom Superhero profile and leave some words of encouragement.

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