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School Improvement Models Face Opposition in Congress

First it was Race to the Top. Now the school improvement models are running into trouble on Capitol Hill.

Flanked by major players in both the national teachers' unions, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, today announced a framework (not a bill) that would basically ditch the idea of having just four options in favor of a broader array of possible remedies for schools.

Chu wants to use the reauthorization of ESEA to prod schools to promote flexibility and collaboration (such as beefing up mentoring and induction programs), remove barriers to student success (such as increasing community involvement and support), and foster teachers and school leaders (such as increasing the use of support staff like speech therapists and school psychologists). And she wants schools to be given a longer time frame, three to five years, to turn around.

Not surprisingly, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who showed up at the press conference, is a huge fan of the proposal. She said closing down schools, probably the most controversial of the department's four models, should still be on the list of options, but it should be considered a last resort. And Lily Eskelsen of the NEA, held up Chu's framework saying "I love this paper!"

But reporters wanted to know whether this approach demonstrates too much flexibility. Would this mean, basically, that schools could do whatever they wanted?

Weingarten, for one, doesn't think so. She said she has seen firsthand the impact that the strategies outlined in Chu's framework have had on struggling schools throughout the country.

Chu told me after the hearing that she thinks some of her Democratic colleagues on the education committee share her concerns about the models. And she'll be meeting with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee tomorrow to discuss her framework.

Chu's press conference is just the latest bad news development for fans of the four models.

At a hearing yesterday of the House Education and Labor Committee, lawmakers and witnesses, including practioners, expressed skepticism that the four models outlined in the regulations for the School Improvement Grant program have research to back them up, and said that schools may need a broader array of options to help those that are struggling the most, including extended learning time and professional development.

You can get a sense of what committee members are thinking if you read between the lines of this statement, put out by Democratic leaders on the committee yesterday.

Their sentiments echo much of what was said in a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee earlier this spring, during which lawmakers also aired concerns about what they perceive as the rigidity of the models. They said, for instance, that rural schools would have a really hard time implementing them. You can check out a video of that hearing here.

UPDATE: During the House Education and Labor Committee hearing, Rep. Miller was pretty clear that he thinks foundering schools need to think beyond just the four models.

"You can choose to say you're going to turnaround a school you can reconstitute a school, you can close a school," he said. "It won't matter if you don't have [certain] ingredients in place ... [including] collaboration, buy in [from] the community, the empowering and the professional development of teachers. If you don't do these things and you have to more or less do them together you're going not going to turnaround much of anything. .... These four choices are interesting, but they've got to be fleshed out here. There's a portfolio of things you need to bring to this problem."

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