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Savvy blogger suffers real-life school reform

The "Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-Ed)" blog put out by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation had the clever idea to ask Kilian Betlach, who used to write the delightful "Teaching in the 408" blog, to ruminate on the school reform process. Betlach, previously a seventh-grade teacher in east San Jose, has just had a jarring personal experience with school reform. He is assistant principal of a small middle school in Oakland, Elmhurst Community Prep, forced to fix itself under federal rules.

Here is how he told the tale in a guest column, "Liposuction approach to school reform," posted Aug. 8. The point he makes about the limpness and aimlessness of what is supposed to be a tough and constructive process deserves attention. This is going on all over the country.

By Kilian Betlach

Last March, the California Department of Education released a list of “persistently low-performing schools” that would be part of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) process. Our school was on it.

In the weeks and months that followed, as every day became increasingly dominated by our place on the list, our school community went through the Kübler-Ross grief cycle:

Shock: Are you kidding? Elmhurst Community Prep has posted a net gain of 39 API points in three years, and stands 120 points higher than the last year of the since-reconstituted Elmhurst Middle School. This is persistently low-achieving?

Denial: No way this is right. Get our picture of the front page of the paper.

Anger: This is what we do now? Not teaching and learning, but reading about federal grant processes? This is what’s best for kids?

Bargaining: We’re clearly caught in an algorithmic error. Tweak the algorithm and focus on some schools that more desperately need aggressive intervention.

Depression: Turns out the Department of Education welcomes algorithm changes the way Arizona welcomes immigrants.

Testing: Okay. We’re here. We have four options. We’re not closing (#1), and we’re not reconstituting again (#2). Are we going charter (#3) or doing this transformation thing (#4)?

Acceptance: As professional educators we feel the riptide urgency to close the achievement gap. We recognize that we have to get better. Our staff and our community believe the transformation option is a way to do this. Let’s roll some sleeves and get to work.

Roll up our sleeves we did. It hasn’t been an easy road, but we came out of this with a strong finish to the 2009-2010 school year, and a compelling plan to raise the quality of education we provide.

I came out it with the belief that the SIG process — and all similar initiatives — represent an insufficient, low-leverage path toward improving our schools. I do not believe that reform-by-grant-application is capable of bringing about the dramatic change our kids deserve.

Reform-by-grant-application asks small numbers of schools to make small changes over a short period of time, supported by temporary funding. Even if presented in a manner that does not discredit past improvement or spread disharmony and discord, such initiatives lack essential staying power and capacity building. Yes, we may have funding to extend the school day for the length of the grant, but then what? Yes, we may have funding for additional specialists to work with our kids, but how will we pay them after the grant expires?

The reform-by-grant ideology sees a school system in need of tweaks and temporary fixes — change, not reform. It’s the ideology of liposuction, not diet and exercise.

This is problematic, not because Elmhurst Community Prep and schools like us won’t benefit from increased funding. We may. The real problem lies in the stark reality that after all the grief and long hours of planning, after all the revisions and implementation meetings, the reform-by-grant-application approach may bring about better results in one or two of Oakland’s over 100 schools; it will have done nothing to reform the conditions that make improvement necessary in the first place.

By Jay Mathews  | September 8, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Kilian Betlach, blogger has his school reformed, federal reform process proves insipid, former Teaching in the 408 blogger, post on Thoughts on Public Education  
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Reform-by-grant-application. I love it.

Posted by: pittypatt | September 8, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Reform-by-grant-application. I love it.

Posted by: pittypatt | September 8, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Seems like anger was the appropriate response. They should have stopped there. This is the other side of NCLB-RTTT. Not just a mis-allocation of funds, this has been going on since before Plessy v. Ferguson, but the forced dismantling of programs that show long-term promise in favor of the short term fad.

My favorite line was "the ideology of liposuction." That not only describes the current school "reform" fad, but our approach to almost every national problem. If you can't claim results within 6 months, it's time to move in another direction.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 9, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I loved the Kübler-Ross grief cycle analogy...a very worthwhile read.

Posted by: lacy41 | September 9, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

"Results" in one or two years is actually corporatism at work killing public schools. It's "profits (change, improvement) now" over reality. Learning, whether in school or out, does not work that way. Using someone's choice of figures and numbers to command an area that has no relation to it is insanity. We should not let the politicians and self-annointed experts get away with this. EVERYBODY SPEAK UP!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | September 10, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I took some more time today to look into the situation at Elmhurst and in the Oakland school district and on the surface at least it seems like they do have a much more daunting task than the Albany City School District in New York. They have about 3 times the budget but 5 times the students. On the other hand Elmhurst has failed to make AYP on the most recent 3 years listed on their "school scorecard". There are middle schools in the district that seem to be doing better than Elmhurst with similar looking student populations.
Mr. Betlach is much too pessimistic about the transformation model for reform. Here's how it's described by the U.S. Dept of Ed -
"Similar to the Turnaround Model -
Uses a rigorous and equitable evaluation system for teachers and principals and rewards school leaders, teachers, and other staff who, in implementing this model, have increased student achievement and high school graduation rates, and identifies/removes those who, after ample professional development, have not increased student achievement."
There's nothing in this description that says the school should commit to programs that don't have a continued funding stream. Since Elmhurst has made progress in the past, just not adequate progress, there's no reason why they couldn't use any grant money they get for things like teacher training, white boards, extra computers in the classroom, improvements to the building(Albany HS has classrooms where the temperatures regularly are in the 90's), improved data gathering and analysis(in Albany it still is impossible to track everything relevant about individual students in real time over a district wide coputer network), etc, etc. The thing that educators in general around the country have to realize is that the taxpayer is not going to tolerate the status quo any longer when it comes to education, and we're not going to just keep handing more and more money to the same people who created the problem without lots of strings attached. Educators in general, but particularly the ones in urban schools districts, are going to have to lead, follow, or get out of the way. If you're an educator and you don't like the current education reforms I suggest you find a new career.

Posted by: david_r_fry | September 12, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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