The new governor should make evidence-based decisions on improving our schools

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Lincoln Johnson teaches his 9th grade pre-calculous class at Hillhouse High School in New Haven.

A recent NY Times article calls attention to a $773 million failed experiment within New York City Public Schools — an effort intended to address the city’s 94 lowest-performing schools.

New York City’s “Renewal” effort proved to be another flash-in-the-pan attempt at addressing the district’s most struggling schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his city’s adoption of the Renewal program in late 2014; this initiative came on the heels of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sweeping school closures and charter replacements.

Three years into its implementation, only 25 percent of Renewal Schools have seen significant improvement. Another 25 percent have closed, eliminated grade levels, or merged with other schools. For the 50 remaining Renewal Schools, de Blasio says the program will reach its “natural conclusion” soon. Overall, the program fell substantially short of expected results.

The primary takeaway from Renewal’s failure may be a superficial one. It could be easy to assume that states simply need to apply a heavier and swifter hand when it comes to closing schools. While school closures may be necessary in the most dire of circumstances, the true transformation of struggling schools is complex. It requires unrelenting focus on recruiting, supporting, and retaining talent – combined with evidence-based strategies for success.

We will not do right by all students until we take the time to study why some turnaround efforts succeed, while others fail.

Lessons from Lawrence Public Schools’ successful turnaround effort in Massachusetts demonstrate that the work of revitalization must be tailored to a community’s unique context, and must prioritize engagement with families, teachers, and school leaders. It also requires a strategic plan with clear benchmarks, frequent and intentional checkpoints over multiple years, and a focus on empowering those who work most closely with students.

Above all, struggling schools require a tremendous investment in educator talent. While there are many different models of high-achieving schools, the common thread is strong leadership and effective teaching. Our task is to build capacity in school systems, providing educators with quality tools and training to adapt to the changing needs of our children and communities.

In Connecticut, the Commissioner’s Network is a group of up to 25 schools representing approximately 15,000 students across the lowest-performing districts. These schools receive funding and administrative flexibilities on a three-to-five-year period in order to implement productive and lasting change. Built into this initiative are expectations for progress-monitoring, as well as opportunities for cross-school learning and elevation of strong practices. Several years into implementation, the state should review the progress and outcomes of these schools, and make findings transparent to the broader public so we may identify the most effective strategies for school turnaround.

It is time to take stock of our own efforts to ensure these children are receiving the education they deserve. And if not, we must adjust course.

When a large urban district makes headlines for failing students, the immediate response is to blame the initiative. Instead, we offer this thought: a quarter of New York City’s Renewal Schools made improvements significant enough to exit the program. Another quarter fared so poorly they had to be closed, reduced in size, or combined.

As we consider Connecticut’s own school turnaround efforts, what can we learn about what worked, where it worked, and why? What can we learn about what failed, where it failed, and why? Most of all: what can we learn about the way these different schools approached the monumental task of cultivating and retaining educator talent? None of these learnings are possible without rigorous follow-through on these efforts and transparency around the results.

On November 6, voters will head to the polls. The results of this election will shape our state’s education landscape for years to come. Our new leaders in Hartford must commit to providing all children with the high-quality education they deserve.

However, before we dive into the next creatively-named initiative, let’s take a measured look at past lessons learned, hold ourselves accountable to current results, and make evidence-based decisions that will translate into long-term and sustainable success for all of Connecticut’s students.

Shannon Marimón is Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, and the former division director of educator effectiveness for the Connecticut State Department of Education.


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