Australian Principals to Get Greater Autonomy

According to a recent article in The Australian, education reforms in Australian public schools will lead to school principals being given a great deal more power over budgeting and personnel functions than they had previously been given. Presently, the autonomy of Australian principals varies by state and territory. The shift to devolve power to the school-level come in response to a recognition at by education leaders at the national level that principals require greater decision-making power to respond the demands of increasing school accountability. 

This Australian education reform is evidence that the trend of moving more decision-making power to the local school leaders stretches across national borders. With effective school leadership, the site-based management concept has the potential to bring about significant changes in public schooling. What could be better than having great leadership close enough to the ground to really understand the needs of unique student populations. We must give school principals the power to mobilize resources in ways that best serve their students’ unique learning needs.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Optimistic About Receiving “Race to the Top” Funds

During a recent interview on KET’s (Kentucky Educational Television) “One to One with Bill Goodman,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Dr. Terry Holliday expressed optimism about the Commonwealth’s chances of getting federal funds in the US Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” competition. The commissioner cited the Gate’s foundation’s funding of a consulting firm to help Kentucky craft its “Race to the Top” application as evidence that Kentucky’s education reform efforts are recognized and appreciated nationally. When asked whether Kentucky being one only ten states not having charter school legislation might hurt the state’s chances of receiving fundings, Holliday said that he did not believe it would. He talked about the possibility of integrating successful school models like KIPP (Knowlege Is Power Program) schools into the school-based decision-making framework already in place in Kentucky as one strategy for turning around persistently failing schools, but he did not indicate that charter schools were on the horizon in Kentucky. While acknowledging that Kentucky nor any other state could be assured of receiving funds, Dr. Holliday said that he felt good about Kentucky’s chances. As a new Kentuckian, I hope he’s right.

Federal Initiatives to Recreate Public Schools as Community Hubs

This afternoon the Center for American Progress sponsored a forum to discuss the future of community schools reforms and school-community partnerships. Among the participants were former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, House of Representatives Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, and American Federation of Teacher president Randi Weingarten. The conversation centered around a reinvigorated effort to recreate America’s public schools as community schools, in particular those schools that serve lower-middle and lower income students. Forum participants agreed that the current model of public schools does not effectively serve large segments of American students. They called for a reconceptualization of public schools as community hubs; places where a community’s resources could be organized around student success.

Current legislative initiatives to support community schools reform include Rep. Steny Hoyer and Sen. Ben Nelson’s Full Service Community Schools Act, H.R. 3545 and S. 1655. This legislation proposes the authorization of $200 million per year over five years to provide grants for partnerships between school districts and community-based organizations. Additionally, the US Department of Education has requested $10 million for fiscal year 2010 to provide “Promise Neighborhoods” grants. These competitive 1-year awards would go to non-profit, community-based organizations “to support the development of plans for comprehensive neighborhood programs, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, designed to combat the effects of poverty and improve education and life outcomes for children, from birth through college” (US Department of Education, 2009). 
Great Britain has led the way in reconceptualizing public schools as community schools. The UK is on track for all of its public schools to offer extended hours and provide extended services by 2010. The Obama administration, legislators, and teachers unions appear to be extremely supportive of efforts advance the community schools model in US public schools. The current legislative initiatives have the potential of providing incentives that can stimulate schools and communities to co-plan, coordinate, and collaborate; but it will be local schools and districts, families, and communities that determine whether or not the goals of these initiatives are achieved.

School Power Devolution and ESEA Reauthorization

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am anxiously awaiting the details of the Obama administration’s proposed reauthorization of ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act). Hopefully, I’m not jumping to conclusions, but recent comments by Sec. Duncan concerning the reauthorization give a school power devolution proponent like myself hope for the future of education reform. In a September 24th speech titled “Reauthorization of ESEA: Why We Can’t Wait,” US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the statement:

“In my view, we should be tight on the goals—with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers—but we should be loose on the means for meeting those goals.”

My interpretation of his comment, which admittedly could  be incorrect, is that we will see in the administration’s proposal an insistence that states adopt high education standards, something that they were not required to do under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But also, it sounds like the proposal could include provisions that support the devolution of authority to the district and school-building levels; holding schools to high standards, but giving leaders at the school and district levels the flexibility to figure out how best to reach those standards for the unique populations that they serve. This move would not be surprising given the administration’s support of the charter school concept which in most places does just that.

I’m only speculating, but we shouldn’t have to wait long to see the details. Duncan has said that serious consideration of ESEAs reauthorization should begin in January 2010.

School-Based Councils, Superintendents, and Principal Selection in Kentucky

Kentucky State Representative Carl Robbins, chair of the House Education Committee, announced to a group of University of Kentucky education faculty and graduate students today that the House Education Committee would hear a bill during the next legislative session proposing amendments to principal selection in Kentucky. Presently, the Kentucky school based decision making statute (KRS 160.345) gives school-based councils the authority to select a new principal when a vacancy occurs. This policy has come under attack by district superintendents who the policy prevents from having a hand in selecting principals. The obvious intent of the statute was to give teachers and parents at the school building level the opportunity to choose a school leader who they believe is best able to meet their school’s unique needs. However, several concerns with the policy have emerged. First, while councils are vested with the authority to select principals, once hired, principals are held accountable to district superintendents who can legally fire them. In some instances, personality mismatches, political differences, or sheer incompetence on the part of the selected candidate have resulted in strained relationships between principals and superintendents. Because councils have varying levels of education expertise and represent diverse interests and ideologies, the reasons for their selecting a candidate may or may not be based on the candidates ability to provide effective school leadership. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Kentucky legislature does with the policy.

Redistricting and Socioeconomic Diversity

Large numbers of parents attended the New Hanover County (Wilmington, NC) School Board meeting last night to protest the board’s proposed redistricting plans. The board has proposed a plan that would arrange students so that students receiving free and reduced-price lunch would not make up any more than 50% of a school’s student body. To do this, however, some students would have to be bused across the county. Some New Hanover County parents have been very vocal opponents of this plan, organizing events and even launching a website

Battles between parents and local school boards over busing are not uncommon to North Carolina. Both Wake County (Raleigh, NC) and Charlotte-Mecklenburg deal with similar issues. At issue in each debate is the question of whether school boards should play an active role in ensuring diversity, whether racial or socioeconomic. Few people today openly disparage the goal of diversity in schools, but upon realizing that diversity does not magically appear without some degree of inconvenience to some person or group, diversity’s fans tend to fall by the wayside. Because neighborhoods are not typically socioeconomically diverse, districting plans where school attendance boundaries are drawn with proximity to the school as the only consideration do not result in socioeconomically diverse schools. 
Why is socioeconomic diversity important? Well, the research is clear that students with low SES backgrounds perform at higher levels in schools with more heterogeneous socioeconomic student bodies. Additionally, it is my contention that all students benefit from experiencing diversity in schools; diversity that is a reflection of our communities and our world. 
In communities across America, we are finding that the broader collective goals of public education (achievement for all children, diversity, etc.) may at times conflict with our individual goals (best education for my child, at the greatest convenience for my family). We will continue to fight battles like the one brewing in New Hanover County until we come to some consensus on the purpose of our public schools. Are they here to serve us collectively or individually? We are seeing that we may not be able to have both all the time.
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The Realities of Urban Schools and Communities, Part II (Solutions)

As promised, I will try extremely hard to not harp on problems without also exploring some viable solutions. As such, I offer two which I believe hold great promise for turning around some of our most difficult urban schools. As a school leadership professor most of you probably won’t be surprised that I start with leadership. Urban superintendent’s must make a top priority of placing a highly effective principal in every school school building. Whether you’re talking about schools, supermarkets, or restaurant, there is absolutely no substitute for effective building leadership. There are a myriad of reasons why these buildings aren’t always led by effective leaders, district-level politics being primary amongst them. Seniority and conyism are the root of too many  Principalship appointments. I am absolutely opposed to anyone being given a position because of the number of years that they have worked in a school district. That makes absolutely no sense, and our children’s education is too important to continue playing those types of games. My solution calls for eliminating the consideration of everything in the principal selection process that is not directly related to determining how capable a candidate is of providing high needs schools with highly effective leadership.

Second, with that effective pricincipal in place, s/he must be given the the authority to make decisions, real decisions. One of the things that perplexes me most is that we have dramatically increased the level of accountability of our school leaders, but in many cases have restricted their discretion to the point where very little of what goes on in their buildings is under their control. Principals in too many of our highest needs schools are no more than middle-managers, carrying out orders from district administrators who don’t truly have a grasp of what the needs are at the school-building level. My solution calls for continuing to hold school leaders accountable for the success of their schools, but in turn giving them the authority to make real decisions in their buildings. I’m talking about budget decisions, curriculum decisions, selecting their own staff, negotiating salaries, and yes, having the power to remove staff if need be. 
I believe that getting the right people in leadership positions and then giving them the power they need to do their jobs would result in school leaders rising to and above expectations. Throughout my career I have worked with so many incredibly intelligent, passionate, and creative educators, and I know that we have the human resources to turn some of our most challenging schools into shining stars. But we have to stop getting in the way of student learning with outdated policies and practices that have nothing to do with providing all children with a first-rate education. 

The Realities of Urban Schools and Communities, Part I (Problems)

I read a comment this morning made by Dr. Steve Perry on AC 360 producer David Puente’s blog. Dr. Perry is the founder/principal of The Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut and a CNN education contributor. in response to a question posed by David of whether the federal government should take a response similar to that taken in the 1950’s with school desegregation in response to urban youth violence in and around schools. Dr. Perry said no, and responded by saying, “The kids who kill in Chicago don’t kill because they have no regard for the life of others. They kill because they have no regards for their own life. They don’t value their life. They have no plans no goals no future. Part of the solution are teachers who really teach, parents who get involved and male role models who don’t go missing.” My training is not in psychology so I don’t feel qualified to comment on why children kill, but I do feel qualified to offer some commentary on Dr. Perry’s recommendations. Dr. Perry’s recommendations are wonderful. If we could pull those things off, I have no doubt that urban schools and urban communities would be transformed. Unfortunately, however, making those recommendations a reality is difficult to say the least.  Let’s talk about them.

Good teaching. Well who can argue with that. Research has consistently shown that the classroom teacher is bar-none, the most influential person to affect student learning at school. Classroom teachers for better or for worse make huge impacts not only on learning but on the lives of their students. So why don’t we have quality classroom teachers in every classroom? Well, there are lots of reasons. First, it shouldn’t be no surprise that filling teaching vacancies at high-needs urban schools is not easy. Especially in this era of high-stakes education accountability, highly-skilled teachers are not beating down the doors to teach under some of the most difficult circumstances, with fewer resources and oftentimes for less pay. The result is that these schools are often left with disproportionately high numbers of low to no skill teachers in some the most challenging classrooms. Take it from someone who spent his first year in one of those schools, it doesn’t work out too well.

Additionally,the reality is that even for experienced teachers, teaching under those circumstances wears on you; I am talking about financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For anyone who doesn’t believe me, go try it for a couple of years and come back and tell me how your disposition changes. Year after year of leadership and teaching turnover, new and improved “save your school” programs, real or perceived danger, and in many cases corruption often wears teachers down. I’m not making excuses for anyone who doesn’t do their job, but this is the reality. And that’s we’re charged to deal with, reality.

What about “parents who get involved?” Sounds great! Let’s do it! But wait, the reality is that all parents will not be involved. In fact, in many of our highest needs districts the majority of parents will not be involved in school, at least not in the way that educators typically think of involvement. Reasons include  parents not having adequate transportation or childcare to attend school meetings, parents’ perceptions (and their perceptions are their reality) that they are not welcomed or respected at the school, and yes, some parents are just indifferent to whether their children get a good education or not. It’s sad, but again, we’re telling the truth here. Does that mean that all hope is lost? No. In future posts, we will talk about strategies for engaging parents who traditionally have not been involved in schools. Let’s be honest from the start, we will not engage them all, but we can do a hell of lot better than we’ve done in the past.

The tragic loss of young life in Chicago and across the country is heartbreaking, but the harsh reality is that we are not going to fix the problem of urban youth violence this month simply because there are more people paying attention to it than usual. Our problems did not escalate to where they are over night and they will not be fixed over night either. Dr. Steve Perry is absolutely right in his contention that our schools remain our best shot at making a difference in the lives of high-needs urban youth, and he is no stranger to the dealing with the problems that plague so many urban schools. He is the founder and principal of the very successful Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. At Capital Dr. Perry has done a tremendous job graduating and sending to college children who statistics say should be dropouts. But the models that have been successful for charter schools, magnet schools, and private schools will not bring the same results to traditional public schools. The urban high-needs traditional public school is unlike any other institution and requires unique consideration.

Anyone who knows me knows that one of my pet peeves is dwelling on problems without offering solutions. So over the next week, the education policy matters blog will be dedicated to thinking through some realistic strategies for keeping kids safe and improving learning in our urban centers. We must get this generation of inner city kids graduated from high school and on to some form of post-secondary training. When I say we, I’m not just talking about educators. I’m talking about educators, parents, and community members. The problems that we face are too big and too complex for even one of these groups to be left out of the solution. We can make things better, but we must come together, put selfish interests aside, and work toward the common goal of helping OUR kids to make a better life for themselves and a better future for all of us.