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Duncan, NEA President Highlight School Improvement Model

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the NEA, are holding an event today at a middle school in Prince George's County, Maryland, that is trying out one of the four, controversial school improvement models spelled out in the regulations for the School Improvement Grants.

On the surface, this seemed like one more photo-op to dispel the notion that the administration is locking heads with unions over education redesign efforts. That seems to be a big public relations push for both the unions and department right now, culminating in a big Union Collaboration Jamboree, which will be held early next year.

Still, I found the choice of the school, G. James Gholson Middle School, pretty interesting, once I found out more about it.

Why? Well, as you may remember, schools have a choice of four improvement models.
This school implementing the "turnaround" model - which requires removing more than half the staff. The turnaround model is much more restrictive than the "transformational" model, which most schools have adopted and which the union seems to see as the most flexible. (For more on the ins and outs of each of the four models, check out this story.)

The models, particularly the ones that require removing staff and closing schools, have run into trouble in Congress and elsewhere, in part because of opposition from the unions. They have said the models are too prescriptive and that teachers should be given a chance to improve.

But this school has instituted some pretty dramatic measures, some of which are steps that the NEA has been skeptical of.

The school has made all staff reapply for their positions, and only 25 percent were rehired. Most of the teachers are came through alternative certification programs, including Teach for America and a program run by University of Maryland. And all teachers have to agree to performance incentive-based approach. They get bonuses if the school, and individual students, meet achievement targets. (The unions have liked bonuses for whole schools more than those for individual teachers.)

The school is also trying out some approaches that the union has been more comfortable with, or outright encouraged. For instance, they have lengthened the school day by an hour, and are offering Saturday tutoring and mentoring sessions. Teachers are being given extensive professional development, including instructional coaches. The school has also made big curriculum changes.

Unions have been big cheerleaders for efforts to involve parents and provide social services, and the school is on that too...It's holding monthly parent meetings and training sessions, and is adding a bilingual parent/community outreach person to staff. There's a full-time social worker with monthly workshops with parents. They're even hoping to offer GED courses for parents.

Plus, in addition to using the turnaround model, the school is part of NEA's Priority Schools Campaign, which highlights "innovations and positive outcomes in America's struggling schools", according to an NEA press release. So there's plenty there for the union to like, too.

I'd be surprised if the union has suddenly reversed course on the policies they've been concerned about, at least on a national level...but the visit is interestingly symbolically, if for no other reason.

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