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Reform Follows Function

The federal push for accountability at "persistently low-achieving" schools across Texas is running smack into the hard, slow work of improvement at the local level.

Use our data app to find "persistently lowest performing" schools in Texas.

Edward Conger, the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, one of the Dallas Indepenent School District’s toughest high schools, came to public education after two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps. He brought a lot of that Marine attitude with him: If his students don’t do their homework, it generates an immediate call home and a mandatory two-hour stay after school.

“It sounds silly, but what’s made the difference is actually holding the kids accountable and helping them understand that choices have consequences — that in the real world, if they don’t do their job, they’re going to be fired,” Conger says.

Similarly, if a teacher doesn’t perform, he won’t hesitate to find someone who will. And he holds himself to the same standard. “I don’t ‘deserve’ this job,” he says. “I have no right to be a principal at a high school — I have a responsibility. Either I’m making change for kids or I’m not.”

That culture of accountability has shown improvement at Jefferson, where about half the students historically have dropped out. Just 18 months after Conger’s arrival, the school has upped its overall ranking from 19th out of the 22 DISD high schools to sixth. In math, 72 percent of its students posted a passing rate on the TAKS test this year, compared to just 42 percent last year.

And yet federal education officials, armed with $390 million in grants available to Texas, now have mandated that DISD fire or transfer Conger in order for his school to collect any of that money. Even with solid improvements in a short time, Jefferson still makes the list of “persistently lowest-achieving” schools, along with 158 other schools across the state. It’s a textbook example of how well-intentioned plans hatched at the U.S. Education Department, which seeks an ever-bigger role at the local level, can crash against inflexible, get-tough accountability rhetoric.

[View our data app of "persistently lowest-achieving" schools.]

The new grant fund, similar to the Race to the Top grant program in both its largesse and its philosophy, represents the latest example of Washington’s strategy to push a policy agenda to local schools, with the state as the middleman and buckets of cash as the sweetener. Jefferson and others on the list of low-achievers are eligible for up to $2 million — a massive amount for an individual school — but only if they are willing to commit to one of four “drastic reform” models. The first two involve getting rid of the principal (one of those requires that at least half the faculty be added to the firing line). The third calls for closing the school and transferring students to a higher-performing campus nearby. The fourth mandates handing over the reins to a charter school operator. The irony in that last option: Many of the low-achieving schools in Texas already are charters — 49 campuses, or nearly a third of the total.

Dallas vs. Houston

How districts and schools react to such a directive won’t become clear until their applications start flowing into the Texas Education Agency in March and April. But the differing reactions of DISD, which has serious qualms, and the Houston Independent School District, which embraces the radical turnaround strategy, are illustrative of the dilemmas each could face.

“When you have a school that isn’t performing for five straight years, making no progress or getting worse, then I think it’s morally necessary to do something drastic for the kids going to that school,” says Chuck Morris, chief academic officer of HISD. “Even if there wasn’t money coming in to help us do this, we would be doing something with all six schools on the list.” Indeed, Houston already has transferred one principal, Steve Amstutz of Lee High School.

In Dallas, by contrast, administrators are wringing their hands about which schools to include, fearing that reform efforts already gaining traction at many of their nine eligible campuses — some which have brand new principals — would get thrown off track in the federally mandated upheaval. Only one or two schools might be good candidates for the extreme makeover, said DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander, declining to name them. “That kind of money certainly gets your attention as a school district. You never want to turn your back on it,” he says. “But if the strings involved make it untenable, you have to reconsider.”

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, along with his political patron, Gov. Rick Perry, scorned such restrictive conditions tied to Race to the Top money. Yet he embraces the school-improvement grant program, reasoning that its strategy, while inflexible and prescriptive, essentially differs little from the state’s existing sanctions for chronically low-performing schools. Further, the required changes apply more to specific schools than to overarching state policies and spending priorities. “It’s a large pot of money, and well-intentioned,” Scott says. “If I was in another state and didn’t have the state law I have, I might have complained about the prescriptive nature of it. But it’s in line with the other accountability measures in our state.”

State rules, however, allow substantially more flexibility in how persistently failing schools adopt turnaround models. Scott often negotiates the details with districts and only orders the firing of individual principals or teachers in some cases. Most schools facing such sanctions adopt some version of the “smaller learning communities” model, which breaks the school into separate academies based on academic focus or grade level.

The new federal turnaround guidelines, with their not-so-subtle push toward expanded chartering of schools, do fall in line with the conservative politics of Scott and Perry. It’s one of their rare points of agreement with the Obama administration, which has broken with traditional teacher-union dogma in supporting charters and, more broadly, in subjugating employee rights to the cause of high standards for student achievement, especially in lower-income schools.

The charter conundrum

The school-turnaround grants also may be an awkward fit for Texas charter schools. In pushing traditional schools to convert to charters, the Obama administration seems to have adopted a charter-is-better philosophy when it comes to struggling low-income schools. After all, nothing in the grant rules provides for converting a failing charter into a traditional district-run school.

Moreover, in Texas, the often poisonous politics surrounding charters over the last 10 years have produced a whole new class of “dropout recovery” charters that dominates the federal list of persistently lowest achieving schools. Those dropout recovery schools — such as the Texas Can network, which has seven on the list, operating in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — specifically recruit students who have dropped out of traditional schools, often several times. (Imagine, for instance, a school created only from the half of the students who drop out of Jefferson High in Dallas, where Conger’s faculty already struggles against great odds.)

In recognition of that steep challenge, the state has classified most of those charters under an alternative accountability system that holds them to a lower standard. Yet federal accountability rules, which often operate in parallel with the state system, make no such distinction, says Texas Charter School Association President David Dunn. And so 49 charters, most with a dropout recovery mission, are on the lowest-achieving schools’ list.

As it would be silly to convert a charter to a charter, that option is out, state officials say. That leaves only the options of closure or sacking the principal and staff, which many charters might be loathe to accept, even with huge amounts of grant money as an incentive. The whole point of chartering, after all, is to give schools the freedom to make hires and spend money without bureaucratic interference.

Nonetheless, the Charter School Association now plans to launch training efforts on the grants for charter operators, many of which hobble along on lesser state funding and could use the money. Currently, Dunn says, the vast majority of charter operators aren’t even aware they can apply. Will they want any part of the money given the strings attached? “It’s hard to say,” he says.  “These are schools that have been struggling, obviously. The academic performance is not to where it needs to be. We’re driving charters to think about academic achievement first and foremost.”

The $2 million question

Few truisms gain real consensus in the troubled world of urban education. One is that money can’t buy student achievement, yet schools can’t improve without adequate money. Another is that almost all great schools have great principals who stay for years, building a collaborative culture of achievement and committing to an academic program for the long term.

At Jefferson, Conger is still at the beginning of that curve. When he considers what he might do with $2 million in grant funds if the feds would actually give it to him, along with the freedom to spend it, he has no shortage of ideas — all focused on recapturing the half of his students who hit the schoolhouse door before graduation.

He’d buy students laptops with remedial reading and math programs they could use to catch up at their own pace and access curricula 24 hours a day. He’d launch an alternative program, operating four hours in the morning and four in the afternoon, for students who aren’t making it in the traditional structure. He’d offer both academic work and vocational programs leading to professional certificates, much like a community college.

“You have to recognize some of the kids are not going to go through the cookie-cutter, seven-hours-a-day of instruction, and they’re voting with their feet,” he says. “So I’d help them in an alternative way, where I don’t really care what they wear in the alternative setting, but I care that they learn to read and get those skills to finish. Then I’d have counselors to work on getting them into a junior college.”

As for the vexing question of whether his school would be better off by keeping him and the faculty he’s put together, or by taking the $2 million the school might get if it signed on to, say, the federal turnaround option that demands his ouster and that of at least half of his teachers? “If the money would be something that could be spent that could deliver results, I’d still say move the principal,” he says. “But you need to make sure you’re not throwing baby out with the bath wash, and that you have somebody that can pick it up and run with it.”

[View our data app of "persistently lowest-achieving" schools.]

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