Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is school accountability finally at hand?

Audit of 10 schools raises as many questions as answers

Last Friday, the Courier-Journal reported that 10 schools across Kentucky, including six in Jefferson County, were undergoing “Leadership Audits.” The article said the audits, “Could result in major restructuring, including replacing the staff or closing the school.” The article reported that this was a result of a new law, House Bill 176. That bill was rushed through the legislature in January 2010.

Back in mid-January when HB-176 and a supporting emergency regulation were passed, Kentucky Department of Education News Release 10-004 clearly stated that designation of schools as “persistently low-performing” under the new act’s rules would not start until after this coming spring’s Kentucky Core Content Testing was complete and released to the public sometime this summer. Thus, the sanctions in the act would not begin prior to that time.

Thus, the confusion began.

Additional confusion came from testimony at a well-publicized meeting of the House Education Committee during hearings on the bill.

Education Commissioner Terry Holiday reported that 12 schools would be identified under the legislation as the state’s “persistently low-performing schools.”

Now, suddenly, the Courier claims that accountability has already begun, and a list of 10 schools – not 12 – had been drawn up by the department.

Adding even more confusion, there is a disconnect in the article regarding statements from the Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross and educators from Louisville.

The article quotes Gross as saying, “The districts are being audited this year because they wanted to be eligible to receive up to $1.5 million in federal School Improvement Grants this year. These schools were only eligible to receive the money if they agreed to participate in the leadership-assessment process this year.”

So, the department says the schools volunteered for the audits.

But, comments from Louisville educators present a different picture. For example, Fern Creek principal Houston Barber reportedly said he was surprised to find his school listed among the state’s lowest performing.

It’s hard to understand how Principal Barber could be surprised if he had volunteered for the process.

Even more to the point, it’s hard to understand how a principal would volunteer for a process that is supposed to have one of these four outcomes:

• External Management Option -- requires that the day-to-day management of the school be transferred to an education management organization that may be a for-profit or nonprofit organization that has been selected by a local board of education from a list of management organizations

• Restaffing Option -- requires the replacement of the principal and the existing school-based decision making council unless audit reports recommended otherwise; screening of existing faculty and staff with the retention of no more than 50 percent of the faculty and staff at the school; development and implementation of a plan of action that uses research-based school improvement initiatives designed to turn around student performance

• School Closure Option -- requires the closure of an existing school and the transfer of its students to other schools within the district that are meeting their accountability measures and reassignment of the school's faculty and staff to available positions within the district

• Transformation Option – includes replacing the school principal who led the school prior to commencement of the transformation option and replacing the school council members unless audit reports recommended otherwise and instituting an extensive set of specified strategies designed to turn around the identified school

Note that all four options result in the principal’s replacement. What principal is going to volunteer for that?

Anyway, I did track down some facts with some help from Ms. Gross.

First, the real program involved isn’t the HB-176 Race to the Top accountability program. Instead, the program is the separate School Improvement Grant program from the US Department of Education, and the rules are slightly different.

That explains why only 10 schools, not 12 were identified.

As a note, the entire list of 10 schools was forwarded to me by Ms. Gross today and includes:

Leslie County High School
Lawrence County High School
Metcalfe County High School
Caverna High School

In Jefferson County:
Fern Creek Traditional High School
Shawnee High School
Western Middle School
Robert Frost Middle School
Western High School
Valley Traditional High School

The fact that this accountability program and the money involved IS NOT from Race to the Top explains why the program started now. The schools could only get the School Improvement Grant money if they volunteered to undergo a leadership audit this year.

But, some questions remain unanswered.

Did the schools really volunteer for this program?

Have the truly lowest performing schools have been identified? I raised similar questions about Henry High School when the first list of 12 schools came out?

Are all of these schools Title I schools (Race to the Top requires a mix of Title I and Non-Title I schools to be identified)?

Based on discussions I had with Ms. Gross today, does the School Improvement Grant program also allow a fifth option where the principal does not get replaced in the school? If so, will all the schools get to skate with this shadowy fifth option, or are some educators about to see their school assignments abruptly ended for cause?

And, what’s the ever-aggressive Jefferson County Teachers Association, where most of the schools in trouble are located, going to do about all of this?

Stay tuned for more on all of that.

One last note: It sounds like the people doing the actual audits may have their act together very well. They are really looking at what goes on in these schools, and, in the interests of finally doing something for the long-suffering students in these very low performing schools, that is exactly what needs to happen. It remains to be seen if the reports will match the field activities of the audit team and if the recommendations will actually be implemented.

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