ESEA: DOE needs to revisit turnaround strategies

Some people are disturbed by the seeming pattern of earthquakes across the Western Hemisphere recently. I am disturbed by seismic activity of a different sort, shattering the lives of some of our most vulnerable teachers and students across the country.

In Greenville, MS, formerly the Queen City of the once cotton-rich Delta, parents were recently informed that every teacher and administrator has been “non-renewed” for the next school year due to the district’s consistently poor student test scores. Shortly after the teachers learned of their fate came reports that the district leadership was in New York to recruit new teachers. This year’s state tests are about to be given; and the individual performance evaluations of teachers have not yet been conducted. Teachers were non-renewed en masse, but some may be rehired based on the actual quality of their work (imagine that). By that time, I’m sure some of these quality teachers may have taken the hint and left in search of a more respectful and appreciative employer. Meanwhile, who will be here to teach the Delta’s children?

Alone, this situation would be sad enough, but it comes on the heels of the equally misguided tactics used on a historic black school in Georgia (read the moving profile by Susan Graham over at Teacher Magazine). Collective bargaining is illegal in Mississippi, as it is in Georgia, and there is no such thing as teacher tenure; consequently, every educator must sign a new contract every year. The Greenville district has had a string of superintendents and administrative changes over the past decade. Each new leadership has brought new priorities, new programs, new directives for teachers and principals. For the most part, teachers have done exactly what they were told to do until they were told to do something else and then something else. They’ve been through multiple curriculum changes and consultants, all with sets of instructions on what to do, what not to do, how, and when.

And for their obedience, they have been dismissed.

Underperformance in Mississippi Delta schools is not a recent phenomena. We have at least twenty years of various types of data showing how the predominantly Black and poor schools of the Delta have consistently lagged behind the rest of the state. The state itself is consistently near the bottom on nationwide comparisons, due in large part to the poor performance of Delta schools. Notably, this entire section of the state has also been a chronic teacher shortage area for at least twenty years. A disproportionate number of the classrooms here have been staffed by underprepared, temporary, or out-of-field personnel. Ironically, it is also relatively easy to remove an incompetent teacher in Mississippi, yet it almost never happens; only here there is no union contract or tenure system on which to hang the blame.

In spite of all that, Delta schools also have some of the most outstanding teachers anywhere. Teachers who are devoted to their students; teachers who help those students make incredible academic progress each year against staggering odds; teachers who chose to live and work in the Delta when they could have gone elsewhere. These are attributes teachers in poor rural areas, such as the Delta, share with our beleaguered colleagues working at many inner city schools.

In their book The Teaching Gap, James Stigler and James Hiebert back in 1999 showed us that the U.S. did not need a wholesale replacement of its teaching force; we needed to support and fully develop our professionally trained educators. That sage advice, based on careful comparisons to education systems in competitive nations has gone largely unheeded. By most estimates, school districts, even the more affluent ones, spend less than 5% of their budget on professional development of teachers. This continues even though we now have a growing body of evidence on the impact of teacher quality on student learning.

This is one reason I am disappointed that in its Blueprint for the Reauthorization of ESEA, the U.S. Department of Education has sanctioned only four “turnaround” strategies for struggling or failing schools. Three of those involve the removal of teachers; only one addresses (though not directly enough) building on the strengths of existing staff. How can we justify such a waste of human resources, of human beings? Yet, the same document calls for an elevation of the teaching profession and greater efforts to retain teachers. I am hard-pressed to understand how increasing the job insecurity of teachers in the schools where we need them most will help make the profession more attractive to potential teacher candidates? The Blueprint also suggests that more of the power to make these momentous decisions, as well as even greater control over funding, will be given to those entities at the state and district level responsible for creating (or at least perpetuating) the inequities and gaps the Administration says it hopes to close.

Like my some of the TLN colleagues*, I was left disappointed when I was unable to get some of these answers at the recent USDOE/NBPTS sponsored webinar event inviting NBCTs from around the country to discuss the Blueprint. While I applaud NBPTS for helping to make the event happen, what could have been a great opportunity to interject significant teacher perspective into the crafting of this very important legislation, was more of a DOE sales presentation. A few questions (including one of mine) were answered to varying degrees of satisfaction, but many hundreds more remained. [BTW, heads up to DOE representatives: It is not a good idea to come before a group of America’s top teachers and admit that you don’t have your copy of the Blueprint in front of you, while assuming that we haven’t studied the copies you sent us.]

I am a teacher of writing, and I teach my students the value of drafting, revising, getting feedback, and more revising as steps in successful writing. I view the Administration’s ESEA Blueprint as a work-in-progress. I sincerely hope that the NBCT webinar was the first of many more substantive discussions between teachers and policymakers, and that very soon the issue of how best to “turnaround” failing schools will be addressed more thoughtfully, more realistically, and more humanely.

*For more discussion on this topic visit:

David Cohen – InterACT

Mary Tedrow – Walking to School

Nancy Flanagan – Teacher in a Strange Land