Principals as agents: “failing” schools and illusions of remote control

Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, has announced a plan to provide states with money to provide to school districts which undertake certain “rigorous interventions” in schools deemed to be failing. The program is said to be based on that employed when Duncan was “CEO” of the Chicago schools. I don’t know, but I’ll assume that his rigorous interventions in Chicago were a success (Seyward Darby, writing in The New Republic, certainly thinks so) and that’s why they’re being used as a national model. Unfortunately, we can expect this new, federally-funded effort to be far less successful.

There are four models of intervention on Duncan’s menu:

Turnaround Model – This would include among other actions, replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure and implementing a new or revised instructional program.

Restart Model – School districts would close failing schools and reopen them under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization selected through a rigorous review process. […]

School Closure – The district would close a failing school and enroll the students who attended that school in other high-achieving schools in the district.

Transformational Model – Districts would address four specific areas: 1) developing teacher and school leader effectiveness, which includes replacing the principal who led the school prior to commencement of the transformational model, 2) implementing comprehensive instructional reform strategies, 3) extending learning and teacher planning time and creating community-oriented schools, and 4) providing operating flexibility and sustained support.

All of these are costly and disruptive measures. Some are more costly and disruptive than others, but in the case of a large school district with nine or more “failing” schools, no one model can be used for more than half of them. Only one of the four (the “transformational” model) stops short of replacing both the principal and at least half the staff, so in a large district at least half of the interventions will be costly and disruptive indeed.
When Duncan was running Chicago’s schools, such interventions were tools at his disposal, but the costs of using the tools presumably came out of his budget. Principals knew that they might lose their jobs in the course of a “rigorous intervention”, but they also knew that such intervention was costly to the district and that gave them a measure of protection if they could improve things on their own.

The program Duncan has just announced is different: districts with a large number of failing schools get the money only if they remove the principals and at least half the staff at of at least half the failing schools (or close them altogether). In some cases, that might provide a school’s staff with the motivation to work hard to get out of the “turnaround”, “restart” or “closure” columns, and into the merely “transformational”. In many cases, however, it will leave principals with the knowledge that their dismissal is not a cost to the district, but an actual source of funds from the federal government. In those cases, the effect on a principal’s motivation is likely to be adverse. Overall, the proportion of failing schools that require drastic (turnaround, restart or closure) intervention will be greater under the federally funded plan than it would be if local leaders followed the same policy menu but from their own resources; the financial costs and disruption will be correspondingly higher as well.

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