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Posted at 11:42 AM ET, 06/27/2010

Obama policy blamed for popular principal's reassignment

By Valerie Strauss

An elementary school principal in Lincoln, Neb., is being reassigned. District officials say that she's great and that the school's real problem is poverty. But , they say, the price for receiving millions of federal stimulus dollars is her reassignment.

"It is a direct result of the federal government infringing upon the local control of education, which we all find distressing," Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Susan Gourley was quoted as saying by the Journal Star.

Why is this happening?

Because Elliott School, where De Ann Currin is principal, is expected to be among five Title I schools identified in Nebraska as among the lowest of the low-achieving schools, making it eligible for a portion of $17 million available to Nebraska. The money is part of $3.5 billion that the Obama administration has made available to help the most “persistently low-achieving schools” in each state.

But to claim the Title I money, which is used to help high-poverty schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is requiring that each school district choose one of four “restructuring” options for each of the identified schools.

Two require closing the school and either reopening it as a charter or sending the students elsewhere; another requires that the principal and at least half the staff be replaced, and the last --the least onerous -- requires that the principal be replaced and other reform measures taken.

Currin has been doing an excellent job, according to Gourley and associate superintendent Marilyn Moore. And Elliott School was recently praised by an outside evaluation team.

“There is no one in the federal government that knows what kind of leadership De Ann Currin is providing, and there’s lots of people in Lincoln, Nebraska, that do," Gourley was quoted as saying.

But district officials concluded that Elliott can use the federal money, and that the easiest way to get it is to replace Currin, even though it makes no objective sense.

That is because the way the “lowest-performing schools” are identified in each state --and in Nebraska, in each district -- is different, so the measures have no real meaning.

The real problem, officials say, is poverty; 90 percent of Elliott’s students are eligible for free and reduced price meals, an indicator of poverty.

"I mean, who do you blame for poverty?" Gourley said.

A report released by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy late last year studied federal restructuring strategies undertaken in six states. The conclusion: none of them showed promise, and all of those states -- Georgia, New York, Ohio, Maryland, California and Michigan, had started moving away from them.

Meanwhile, Currin is moving to a different school in Lincoln, and Elliott has a new principal.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 27, 2010; 11:42 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan  | Tags:  de ann currin, duncan and obama and school reform, elliott elementary school, lincoln public schools, obama administration and education policy, obama's education policy, replacing the principal, restructuring and school, restructuring models, schools and federal intervention, stimulus money for education, title 1 money, title 1 schools  
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My question is, and I do not mean this in a disparaging or offensive way: if she is a good principal, then why is her school identified as one of the bottom five worst performing Title 1 schools in the state? I would really like to know the exact reasons the school is so identified.

Posted by: demathis | June 27, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

We tried to tell you...Obama was going to be a BIG mistake!!!

Posted by: MOMwithAbrain | June 27, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

For many years I taught in the most impoverished school in my district. Each year the school in the most affluent part of town had the highest test scores, while the poorest had the lowest scores.

One year some inspectors came from the state to observe our teachers. Naturally all of us were very well-prepared for the visit. I was proud of my students when the inspector came in.

Later, the man took me aside and said that he had been to many schools in my state but he hadn't seen many that were as good as ours! It took a pair of professional eyes to see that my Spanish-speaking first graders were reading and writing very well for second language learners.

The saddest part of this whole "reform" movement is the fact that hard-working teachers in low-income schools are being shamed for conditions that are beyond their control. At the same time, all the teachers in the affluent schools are deemed "excellent."

Although I feel sorry for the principal in this story, it might be a good thing. The average American might not be aware of the "reform" movement yet, but when it starts to affect the local schools in Middle America, things will start to happen.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 27, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

demathis wrote: "My question is, and I do not mean this in a disparaging or offensive way: if she is a good principal, then why is her school identified as one of the bottom five worst performing Title 1 schools in the state? I would really like to know the exact reasons the school is so identified."
Schools are determined to be under performing based on standardized test scores. Unfortunately there are symptoms in poor schools that affect performance as reflected in test scores. One of the greatest is that of student mobility which tends to be much higher in poor schools. Imagine having a third of your students entering your class during the year and having their scores included in your schools' average! Those students may come from places with different curricula, they may have been absent from school prior to enrolling for a long period of time or they may have come from another country. How can a school be held responsible for the test scores of children who have been there less than a year? Attendance tends to be worse in poor schools as well. How can a school be held responsible for the test scores of students who aren't there to be taught?

You might remember the situation that was in the news earlier in the year--Central Falls RI high school which was one of the lowest performing in the state. Their scores had actually increased yet only 7% were rated as proficient in math. When looking at the data for that school I found that about 75% of the students were living in poverty and about 65% spoke English as a second language. I also noted that the suspension rate was 145 suspensions per 100 students and the predominant reasons for the suspensions were insubordination and cutting class. Is is any wonder that the test scores were low. Turning a school like that around takes years. It doesn't happen quickly. The local school leaders and citizens are certainly in a better position to judge the performance of this principal.

The school restructuring models as prescribed by the federal government are intrusive and not the best solution for many schools. Individual districts may have a better understanding of the symptoms of a particular school. They may be able to put the federal dollars to better use to suit their individual needs. Sadly one size fits all cures are what is being foisted on schools, but they are not always the answer!

Posted by: musiclady | June 27, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

The exact same thing happened this year to TC Williams HS in Alexandria. The [Interim] Principal was about to resign anyway, so his replacement hasn't been the focus of the "restructuring", but the paradigm, and the paradox, are the same.

The school is roughly 80% "minority"; a sizable majority are families in poverty; a huge portion are transient, very recently immigrated, and/or non-English-speaking. Etc., etc.

Approximately 20% of the aggregate population was unable to make "adequate yearly progress" on some standardized tests (frankly, I'm impressed, given those demographics, that the percentage passing wasn't lower), and so the entire school is demeaned, despite winning academic competitions and sending a sizable number of graduates to upper-echelon colleges every year. And good teachers now have to fear for their jobs.

Something is wrong with this picture.

Posted by: nan_lynn | June 27, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

The blogger should have noted how little (any?) different these options are than those under NCLB. In fact, NCLB hasn't expired, has it? In which case, but for revision, this is no different than the NCLB approach.

Without educational audits of schools, this is what the public gets.

Posted by: incredulous | June 28, 2010 12:05 AM | Report abuse

My Title I middle school has some of the highest scores in our district but we always "fail" NCLB even though we are usually graded as an A or B school here in Florida But if you have minority populations including socioeconomic minority groups that make up a certain percentage of your school population and if any of these minority groups fail any of
the Tests your whole school fails. So low income schools with multiple high percentage minorities are much more at risk of "failing" than are high socioeconomic schools with fewer minority groups. So low income schools may have 12 ways of failing but only one way of winning. Last year we missed passing by a very slim margin because of a few percent of our special ed children failing the test but our entire school is being punished. You talk about the teachers being punished but the children who worked very hard and passed our tests are also punished because restructuring applies more restrictive remedial practices to the entire school. They end up taking more tests and losing programs like project child that worked very well for our children who could work independently.

Posted by: kmlisle | June 28, 2010 2:11 AM | Report abuse

This is exactly what we get when someone who ran a failing schoool system (Chicago), gets to run the whole country's system. I am surprised and dismayed that Obama would resort to the same crap as his predessessor when it comes to education.

Posted by: jayjay10 | June 28, 2010 5:15 AM | Report abuse

I wonder what prood the government has that the any of the four “restructuring” options actually addresses the root causes of low performance in schools? Does the government even know what the root causes are?

How does closing the school and either reopening it as a charter or sending the students elsewhere address the root causes?

Requiring the principal and at least half the staff to be replaced or requiring that the principal be replaced and other unspecified reform measures taken certainly seems to point to the principal and the staff as the root cause. But what prrof does the givernment have that this has been found to be a root cause?

Posted by: ahashburn | June 28, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Few of the government officials involved in education planning are educators or psychologists. They believe in standardized tests because the "experts" they are consulting tell them these tests are valuable. They have no idea how they are made up or what they are intended to measure.

What the debate really needs is some good investigative journalism about how phony these tests are--that a question may have two correct answers because the second one is officially decreed a fourth-grade concept and the test preparers believe no third-grader will know the word, that a question may be reworded at the last moment to make it fit on the page, that the essay tests are scored by a formula by people who may not have any educational background, etc.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 28, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

sideswiththekids, excellent points about standardized tests.

I have one son studying medicine and he still can't get away from poorly designed test questions that can have varied interpretations under certain situations. At times, he may argue over answers with the professors and produce sound medical literature to back up his answers, sometimes having the test score bumped up and sometimes not. On several occasions, he would get an answer like, "yes, I see/understand what you are saying, but I have to go with what the textbook says is the correct answer." Reminds me of Galen, the famous doctor of ancient time whose accounts were held so high for hundreds of years that med students who disputed Galen were at risk of losing their heads. Cast reason and fact out the window.

On another note, Obama has given Duncan a crown and scepter and free reign over education. Too much money - too much power - void of authentic educational leadership and unworthy of holding this postion in the Cabinet.

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 28, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Whether a school or principal is good or bad MUST be determined by measures that take into account the quality of the "inputs", ie, the students. Based on national data, you could determine whether the scores students received on achievement tests were above or below their predicted scores, where the predictions would come from IQ tests if possible, if not that then from previous years' achievement tests, and at the very least from demographic factors. It is idiotic and wasteful not to do this very basic control. We need to put real scientists and statisticians in charge of eductation reform, not the politicians and ed-school dimwits we have now.

Posted by: qaz1231 | June 28, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Last Friday, at a public event in California, I had the opportunity to tell Arne Duncan that it is not the public schools, nor their teachers, which are failing. Rather, it is decades-old incarceration and economic policies, and other perverted U.S. social values, which have devastated families and devalued children and are the cause of the problems we have.

I told him that public school teachers have been coping the best they can with the failures of our society. Social institutions which connect people together in a meaningful way have almost all been undone (family, church, neighborhoods, etc.). Now local public schools are doomed, a massive program being driven by people who are totally detached from the common people and have no understanding or appreciation of public education themselves.

Note the keynote speakers for the National Charter School Conference which starts today: Bill Gates, Reed Hastings, Arne Duncan, and Joe Scarborough. How could any of them possibly know what's right?

I think if you would look at the backgrounds of the hard-core ed deformers, you would mostly find a set of people who have never had a personal connection with public education; it's definitely true of the above. I believe their hearts just don't understand or value public education, and this is why they push ed "reform" techniques like the elimination of beloved principals, the firing of teachers en masse, frivolously closing and opening and closing a community's schools, engaging in public school name-calling ("failures" and "dropout factories"), undoing years of history and pride held by local communities, and breaking up meaningful interpersonal bonds that the children and adults make at their schools. To people who are detached, any webs of connections that the rest of us have made with each other are completely disposable.

To demonstrate the reality of what we should be dealing with instead of blaming the public schools, I provided Duncan with the following statistics:

-AA unemployment has been approx. twice as high as white unemployment at least since the 1950s
-the number of incarcerated AAs has increased 800% since the 1950s
-US teen birth rate is 52.1%, Canada's is 20%, Finland's in 9.2% (since Finland's high test scores are all the buzz in ed circles)
-US child poverty rate is 22.4%, Finland's is 4.3%
-Prisoners/capita in the U.S. (#1 in the world) is 715. Russia is #2 at 584, Finland is 71.

Naturally, Duncan's response was the usual meaningless, canned ed deform rhetoric.

Posted by: pondoora | June 28, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Pondoora, I respect you ability to be civil with Arne Duncan.

I'mn a teacher and left of center politically. I would have told Arne, flat out, to go back to Chicagao, you su@k at your job.

If only I could, on the news for everyone to watch. I can only dream

Posted by: tazmodious | June 28, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

There are a lot of problems w/ the federal regs, but didn't George W start us down this road?

The results should certainly exclude students that haven't been in that school for x number of years. The results should viewed in the concept of unequal distribution of funding. Those are quantitative differences that are not the fault of the school or the student.

It becomes a bit more socially questionable if you just factor in "poverty".

Posted by: cyberfool | June 28, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Maybe what the locality should do is refuse the money and solve their own problems.

This is the price of Big Government. If you expect the federal government to hold your hand, don't be surprised when it grabs on tight and won't let go.

You can't have it both ways.

Posted by: jrsnotary | June 28, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Pondoora-A couple of things you did not include in your stats (which are excellent by the way)
Both Canada and Finland (since those were the teen birth rates cited) have mandatory sex-ed and access to birth control begining much younger then here (somewhere around 12-14 years of age) and in both places abortion is fully legal (though with better sex ed and access to protection, their rates of occurance are so much lower)

Posted by: schnauzer2 | June 28, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I can't even imagine multiple choice tests used in studying medicine. I'd rather have a med student be able to explain etc. with evidence and sound reasoning.

My Mom just broke her arm and yet doctors couldn't tell if it was broken or if the bone had calcified at an old break. Can you see this problem on a multple choice test? Not to mention she's diabetic and has had major head trauma. Can you imagine another multiple choice question trying to figure out the best way to fix her problem?

Reading, writing and all learning areas are not one dimensional either. Multiple choice can only test one thing, and I don't even think correctly. I could go on and on.

So. . . last night I went to and sent an e-mail to Secretary Duncan and President Obama with the link of this blog about Nebraska letting them know how disappointed I am in them.

Let's bombard them with all of this. We have to do something don't you think?

If you scroll down to the bottom of you can see how to get a hold of them. :-)

Posted by: tutucker | June 28, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

I started teaching in 1970 and have seen many educational trends come and go. None have been terribly successful and I fear that this latest plan from Obama and Duncan are also doomed for failure.

What saddens me the most about RttT is that we will waste more time as more and more students are under-educated. We will continue to misdirect our reform efforts to those working in the classroom. It is these folks who are continually blamed for unsound and untested reforms that were the result of poor decision making on the part of politicians and academics who time spent in the classroom has been limited.

We don't blame soldiers for losing the war...why do we insist on blaming those who work closely, many times giving up their own family time, with other people's children for what ails our public schools.

Posted by: ilcn | June 28, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse


Sideswithkids made an excellent remark about how tests often provide more than one correct answer.

In addition, there is usually much more classroom disruption going on in poor neighborhood schools because more children have behavioral problems there than in a middle class neighborhood. The teacher must spend extra time just controlling the class. In addition, schools in poor neighborhoods usually have higher class sizes and less resources.

There are also other issues, such as the fact that standardized tests are written in standard English. If a child in not exposed to a great deal of standard English they find the tests harder to understand.

Posted by: aby1 | June 28, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

ilcn ,

The reason purpose of RTTT is to give education dollars to business. That's why you are not reading much criticism of it in the newspapers.

Posted by: aby1 | June 28, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

aby1: I know! That's why I think, if the "business" model is the one these "guru's of education" want to follow...let's see a cost/benefit analysis of spending on new curriculum and professional development to supplement the new curriculum. Let's see some cost/benefit analysis on the technology spending for the classroom.

And it is not per pupil expenditures. Those expenditures cover the cost of just about everything in the public schools.

Let's see some real analysis as to how graduation rates and SAT scores have improved since the inception of NCLB and the introduction and adoption of high stakes testing in those states who are newcommers to the high stake testing phenomenon.

Salaries are remaining stagnant, but education spending is increasing. Why? spending

Posted by: ilcn | June 28, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse


Education spending is increasing because of two reasons:

1) the enormous amount of money schools have to pay for the standardized tests from outside companies

2) the enormous amount of money that schools are paying outside companies to help them do better on test scores.

Arne Duncan probably knows this. This might be the Obama administration catering to the education business.

Posted by: aby1 | June 28, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

First we had the Republican politicians with their poor plans for public education that were popular with unthinking Americans, and now we have the Democratic politicians with their poor plans for public education that are popular with unthinking Americans.

Good to see the country consistent whether Democrats or Republicans are in power.

By following our political leaders we can defeat the achievement gap and middle class and affluent class children in public schools will be at the same level as poverty children. Having a teacher continuously spelling out cat will make education as repugnant for the middle class and affluent children that are in our public school as it is for poverty children who have a difficulty in public education. Who says politicians can not be effective?

Bob Hope used to say that no single party could lie to people all the time.
That was why we have a two party system.

Posted by: bsallamack | June 28, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse


That's my theory also...but no one seems to be addressing those increases, allowing these companies to, in essence, rape the public schools.

Posted by: ilcn | June 28, 2010 8:39 PM | Report abuse

It should be noted that Arne Duncan has never taught a day in his life. He has an MBA, and so he believes schools should be run as a business.
Before corporate American takes over the educational system their shills in Congress must prove that public education doesn't work. So, you pass policy that is set-up to make schools fail.
Think schools are poor? Wait until your child is part of a corporate bottom line. I'm sure they'll care about their needs.

Posted by: pcgrnonv | June 28, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Two things to say:

First, just because a principal or teacher is popular does not mean that she is necessarily the most effective person at doing her job. In fact, a recent study of college professors showed the opposite is often true. Students who took a class from the most popular professors typically did not achieve as highly in subsequent classes compared to those who took a class from a professor of average popularity. In short, being an educator should not be a popularity contest; it should be about enhancing student learning in the most effective ways.

Second, we need to get rid of No Child Left Behind, dump all of the bureaucratic entanglement that it creates, put an end to useless and silly testing, and empower local school boards to do what they need to do to improve education. School board members are local parents and community members who actually care about their children learning. Do we really think that a bureaucrat in Washington cares more or will work harder at the task? I doubt it.

If empowering school boards to improve education means busting teachers unions, or even if it involves rejecting federal dollars that come with counterproductive strings attached, then so be it. The federal government should not be in the business of funding or running local schools anyway. Let school taxes be local and state concerns.

Aiming for high achievement is great, but No Child has brought us nowhere. Levels of student proficiency have not improved. All that has improved is the ability of states and schools to create and administer tests that game the system. Labeling schools as failing hasn't raise the level of academic achievement in the country, and yet we keep throwing billions of dollars into the same waste bin. End the madness, and let's try something that actually stands a chance of working!

Posted by: blert | June 28, 2010 11:21 PM | Report abuse

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