Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Epic Educational Turnaround Idea

In the midst of my commute home, I was thinking about so-called “bad” schools (a topic near and dear to my heart). . .And, I sort of had this. . .idea. . .about how to research possible solutions.

At the end of every high school sporting season, the local paper prints the name of the athletes whom have been named to the State and/or National All-Star Team. Once, as a kid, I asked my Dad when the All Star Teams got together to play. He explained that most don’t; it is an honor/symbolic sort of thing. The idea that we promote people to something like a team, and then do nothing with it has always stuck with me. It seems a little broken insofar as awards and concepts go. . .

It occurred to me a long time ago that we should have a yearly State and/or National All-Star Teacher Team for elementary, middle, and high school teachers. It would be awesome to recognize the efforts of teachers in such a regular and accessible manner.  I know. We already have Teacher of the Years and [subject area of choice] Teacher of the Years through [subject area of choice professional association], but this would be regular recognition of teachers across all subjects. . .For instance, if you’re a non-core-subject teacher, you know just how rare it is that we win any school-based Teacher of the Year awards (we are also less likely to be recognized during teacher appreciation week and holidays too).

But, this idea hasn’t ever really developed beyond that for me, because I was/am still bothered by promoting people to a team only to do nothing with that team.

Then, the IDEA happened.

What if we took the All-Start Teaching Teams for elementary, middle, and high school and asked them to make a five year commitment to work together in a “failing” school?  

In this instance, I’m denoting a “failing” school to be one wherein the local and/or state school-board has voted to institute a “turnaround” plan. In the event you don’ t know, a “turnaround” plan is one wherein the entire faculty –including the administration- of a school is fired.

I know. I know. You’re thinking, “Um. How is being placed in a “failing” school a prize?”

Stay with me.

If we had an All-Star Team of teachers, these would be the incredible, special, teachers whom are able to do a lot with a little. These would be driven people whom go after grants and build programs. These would be dedicated people whom believe in the humanity of teaching and abhor complacency. They would be the people who are already the change-makers and the visionaries of their current schools. What better group of people to examine and perhaps help a “failing” school than these heroes?

Here is how it would work:
-All-Star Teachers (AST) would be asked to work as a team in a “failing” school (the AST would include administrators and two educational administrative assistants)
-Should an AST be unable and/or decline, the next teacher in line would be asked
-Each AST team would be asked to make a 5-year commitment as a group (obviously contingencies are available for special circumstances)
-Each AST would be paid based on their experience and education according to the salary schedule of the “failing” school district (paid by the school district)
-However, each AST would be paid for SIX years salary for FIVE years work (the federal government would pay that extra year). This extra year of pay could be paid up-front or over the course of a set-time period of paychecks
-The federal government would provide a moving allowance of no less than $1500 per teacher
-The AST would spend at least 2 months prior to the new placement visiting the school and collaborating on possible programs and initiatives
-Each AST would be expected to teach according to the recognized standards of the school district, and to meet any test/assessment criteria set forth by both the school district and/or federal government (ie they would have the same testing/assessment/standards accountability as any other teacher in the district)
-The AST team would decide upon their own types of professional development. The federal government and/or the state government/BOE cannot interfere and/or require any mandated professional development etc.
-Each AST would be expected to participate in documented professional development. This could be PD designed by the team at school and/or another PD of choosing
-Each AST would be expected to lead their own PD (in no more than groups of 4). This PD could be for the “failing” school, for the district, for the community, or for other teachers (state/nationally)
-The AST would decide on a school governance and structure plan; they have autonomy from the local and state BOE in this instance. The AST gets to decide what school looks like and feels like in the “failing” school
-Each AST would be required to keep a journal documenting their experience (this could be a blog)
-A film crew would be present in the school to document the journey of the teachers and the students (parents would have to opt-out to this at the beginning of the year. Any parent whom refuses will have their child’s face blurred out in any shared video and the child’s name removed from any video files/speech/etc.)
-Each AST is expected to seek IRB approval for a research study related to the “failing” school no later than the end of his/her 2nd year of his/her 5 year tenure. The AST can work solo and/or in groups of no more than 4 individuals.
-IRB-approved research studies will be conducted, scholarly papers will be written and submitted to peer-reviewed journals
-The AST will meet to identify the best parts and worst parts of their interventions. They will share these with the film crew
-The film crew will put together a minimum 8 part series documenting the evolution of the teachers to be shared with schools in similar circumstances
-Hopefully, some of the teachers will continue after the five years; after all they have made a major contribution to changing the outlook of a school.

Can you imagine how different some of these schools would be in five years? First, I think there would probably be both skepticism and hope from the community. Sure, the skeptics would point out that this is just some over-educated people come to “cure” the problems. But, see, the average AST is probably a ridiculously enigmatic and charismatic individual; I’m thinking the ASTs would win over the community by the end of the first year. Additionally, some of the families in the community will probably welcome the opportunity to have fresh eyes and incredibly dedicated people join their community.

I’m sure by now some of you have considered the teachers whom will be out-of-a-job at the “failing” school. But, this is becoming an ever-increasing popular way to handle a failing school: To fire the entire staff and start over. I’m not saying I’m entirely on board. . .But, well, sometimes if a recipe is bad you have to just start from scratch. I’m sure there will be good teachers laid off, and I also feel sure that these good teachers will find another placement. I know of someone who was trying to place a student teacher who had already been asked to leave two placements for very circumspect reasons. I took the opportunity to plead this person’s case to an administrator because I felt bad this person may not have a job. The administrator said, “Why do we fight so hard in education to keep people in the classroom when we know that this is not their thing?!”  It is a hard truth; but it is truth.

As for the ASTs; I think most would be pretty into this. I mean, if you told me I had the opportunity work alongside the very best of my colleagues, I would RUN towards that hard-core. I have had the distinct pleasure to work with some of the most talented educators in my area, and all I can say is that it drives your practice to be so much better; it is an incredible experience.

So, I don’t think my idea fixes education. . .But, I do think it might help us to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to schools that are “failing.”  And, it also allows for both qualitative and quantitative research about “failing” schools. I am so tired of only seeing “look at the data” repeated when we teachers talk about and try to improve the failing situations of our schools and students. This is a human profession; it is hard to ONLY quantify that experience. . .You need both numbers and words.


What do you think? Are you an AST? Would you want to do this?

5 comments:

  1. A noble idea, though maybe a little crazy? I'm someone who likes to troubleshoot, so indulge me as I mention a few of the challenges:

    First - who sets the criteria and determines who the AST's are?
    Then - how do we get the government's financial support, at a time of an abundance of unfunded mandates?
    And the big stuff - the AST is possibly someone who owns a home, loves where they live, whose life is involved in the local community, whose kids are in a school they love, maybe prepping for college, whose spouse has a job they love, and so on. (This would be me: I love my home and am involved with my community. When my son was in school, there's no way I would have pulled him out of an excellent school, away from friends, his scout troop, his band, maybe to graduate from a school somewhere else.)
    Meanwhile, when the AST's make the move for 5 years, who takes over their jobs? And what happens to their exemplary programs? And are their jobs guaranteed when they return? Will they have accumulated salary steps (if they have a step schedule) over those 5 years? And what about their retirement savings? If they are in a different state for those 5 years, they may not get credit for those years in their state retirement system. You are young, this may not seem important to you now, but it's a HUGE thing. I'm in NY, we have a terrific retirement system, but I would NOT accumulate credit for those years out of state.

    And finally - What happens when the AST team leaves? Has a team been changed to take over?

    Gosh, I didn't mean to shoot holes in your obviously well-thought-out idea. I've considered deleting my response, because I don't want to sound like a bitter old lady with a voice of negativity. But I guess I'll post it, because maybe you have some good ideas how to get around my issues. Which, honestly, would never be a real issue because the people who pick exemplary teachers never think to select someone like me, so I'd never have had to mull over the choice to make this multi-year commitment.

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  2. Phyl-no worries. I've cross-posted this on my Tumblr and had a few questions.

    1. It is a working idea; it is also a "fantasy" idea. I think we don' t have enough of those in education. We talk ourselves out of doing anything radical because, "that will never work." And, instead, we go for what we believe to be tried-and-true responses/interventions in challenging educational situations. . .And guess what? They aren't really working at that well. We have more at-risk/failing schools than ever before. So, I think it is a good thing to bandy-about fantasy ideas. . Talk about what we could do if money was no object, if the government would only do this etc. Then, we can start looking at the reality. And, sometimes, when you do that. . .You realize that what you thought was impossible it actually -at least in parts obtainable. A lot of the programs and interventions I've started/use started out as fantasy ideas. I think there is tremendous value in fantasy ideas.

    2. The AST has the ability to decline. Then, the next person in line is asked and so on. . .No one expects someone to walk away from their ideal life. While there are tons of AST who have families and homes tying them to a location, there are just as many AST for whom teaching is THE thing that would make them move. I think we would be surprised at just how many teachers would want to be a part of this. To know you have the opportunity to participate in something aimed at attempting to understand a problem and maybe have a hand in fixing it; it's heady.

    3. So, the AST leaves their current job. Someone else would have to be hired. And, I hate to say this, but your program isn't that exemplary if it hinges entirely on your presence. Sure, the program will change without the creator there; but it shouldn't fall apart. If it does fall apart, then I would venture that the former teacher wasn't all that great and/or wasn't that much of a team player. I'm not ready to talk about it. . .But, I'm in the process of helping my program transition to different ownership. While I want to feel proprietorial; I understand that it is more important that it continue; I'm not irreplaceable (nor should I be). The same is true of any AST.

    At the end of five years the AST has to find another job. It isn't the armed services; you're old job won't be held for you. That is part of the risk. But, hey, you're as AST; you should be a top hire. Furthermore, I would hope that some teachers choose to stay at the school.

    And, I think putting together a transitional plan for when the AST leaves is definitely a missing piece of the puzzle. I like that. . .And, I think the community should be a part of it.

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  3. And Phyl - this next bit is just a general response to everyone; not to anything specific you said. :)

    I've also had someone say that they disliked this idea because it relies on outsiders. Yeah. It does. It relies on outsiders whom are masters at what they do. The schools identified in this fantasy plan are those that have already been chosen as a "turnaround" school. There are no current teachers at the failing school; they've been fired. So, everyone would have to be new (and yes, you can argue that many turnaround schools re-hire the good teachers from the previous lay-off), or at least new-to-the-situation. The point of this is not for people to come in and feel that they are the answer to a problem or that they are saviors of the community. The point is for them to become a part of the community; to see things as "we" and not "me." No matter how the turnaround school is staffed there is going to be a strong element of outsider happening. Sometimes, fresh eyes work. I'm not saying they would in this case, but isn't it worth exploring? Especially, when we really don't have ideas on how to effectively solve the issue of failing schools?

    Lastly, everyone who has talked to me about this has mentioned the money thing. Yeah. Money. We spend tons of it on war and criminalizing people for minor things (can you tell I have another political passion, here?!). This is a fantasy idea, and I pretended that money was no object. But, what if we could convince the government to spend more effectively when it comes to education? Instead of throwing money at paying $$$ for every new (and better hahahaha) standardized test that comes down the pipeline every five years, let's look at the human part of the situation. . .And come up with solutions.

    And, yeah, this is in no way a perfect idea; at all. I'm sure there are parts that come off as privileged, elitest, and biased. . .But, we all seem to agree that there are some major problems in education. Let's all be willing to toss around some ideas.

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  4. Thanks for your heart touchable the epic educational idea. Carry on it. special education week We support to not only parents and children dealing with special educational needs, but also support for schools and businesses for programs, assistance etc.

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  5. Thanks for being brave enough to address this huge issue! Now, maybe you should run for congress!

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