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NEA's Brand of School Improvement

The National Education Association's $6 million Priority Schools Campaign got a bit lost last year in the wake of all the Race to the Top action. Other reporters, myself included, had a hard time distinguishing this effort from all of NEA's other initiatives.

Fortunately, while covering the NEA convention in New Orleans recently, I had a chance to sit down with Sheila Simmons and Steve Snider, the director and associate director, respectively, of the campaign.

A 2009 mandate of the union's 9,000 delegate Representative Assembly, the campaign is funded through the union's strategic plan. It will focus on four core tenets for improving low-performing schools: increasing staff effectiveness; developing family and school partnerships; increasing district and local-union collaboration; and leveraging community assets.

Those tenets aren't groundbreaking in and of themselves, the directors noted. What's new is that they are being put together in a comprehensive reform approach. As Simmons told me, "It's clear that none of this is really brand new, but it's now being done under a different landscape and different public policy."

As for scope, NEA will be focusing on schools in 13 states it's identified as having a strong state affiliate that can help guide the work. Within those states, schools identified as low-performing will have access to online and paper-based resources crafted as part of the campaign. But the core of the work will occur in the subset of NEA-represented schools that ultimately receive federal School Improvement Grant funds. Those will get on-the-ground assistance provided by teams of educators, including the staff of state and local affiliates.

It's no secret that the National Education Association isn't a huge fan of most of the U.S. Department of Education's four SIG models. So it's particularly notable that the union will work with schools using the "turnaround," "closure" and "restart" models, not just its favored "transformation" model.

NEA's critics are probably going to be skeptical of some aspects of this work, such as the fact that it's providing model contract language to local affiliates replete with the union's ideas about professional compensation and so forth. But I, for one, will be watching closely to see what the NEA comes up with.

Following is an edited transcript of my conversation with the campaign's directors.

Q. The priority schools campaign would put more than $6 million into these schools. Can you tell us, briefly, about your approach?

A. Simmons: We think there are four things you have to do. One is having a quality workforce, so we'll be looking to provide support and advocacy in improving the effectiveness and the capacity of staff in these schools. We think the whole issue of leadership is critical, leadership in terms of not only the school district but also leadership in the local association around collaborating and building capacity there. You cannot do this work without being in partnership with the community, so the family-school community partnership component is an element of change and how do we leverage the access of these communities in order to have wraparound services for the schools. If we do these four things, we think we can really improve student learning and student achievement.

Q. A lot of unions have concerns about several of the SIG models. How will you work in schools that are choosing something other than the transformation model you favor?

A. Simmons: We want to make sure that our members in those schools and the community in general understand that we support what's happening in the schools—not that we support necessarily the methodology, but that we support the public policy that says we have to address these issues. If you're in a collective bargaining state, we've developed model contract language that develops each of the models. If you're in a non-bargaining state, we have model MOUs and memorandum of agreement that really address these issues. So it's providing the resources and having some collaboration with the implementation.

Snider: That's where communications is really important. We're documenting the kinds of work our members have done around the country and what the leaders view are the various communication problems, what's come before, what kinds of tactics [members] have used to collaborate with administrators to bring these changes in, and now in the SIG era, to give our members an opportunity to communicate with each other through social media to see the kinds of techniques being used. One district or school might have something that's been successfully implemented through bargaining or an MOU that would be very useful to another school. Creating these communication methods makes the transformation a lot more real to members who are frankly approaching this without a lot of previous experience in some cases.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about what kinds of things you might need to renegotiate in contracts to support these elements?

A. Simmons: One of the first things that each of the models has to do is teacher evaluation and the issue of teacher evaluation being tied to test scores. One thing we have to work with is how do you then have a teacher-evaluation framework that looks at multiple measures and is not only just based on the test scores. One thing we have done to provide support for NEA members is looking at some guidelines and principles. One part of the teacher-leader component of transformation talks about if teachers do well, there might be financial incentives, and if they don't, then there's a possibility of transferring, and so forth. Part of this has to be around how we deal with teacher evaluation, compensation, and reassignment. I would say those are the big three.

Q. The scope of these federal grants is three years, but you'll be reporting back to the Representative Assembly next year about progress. I know you don't want to just look at academic progress, although that's an important indicator. Can you give us an example of what benchmarks might look like for the other areas: for instance, parental involvement and community engagement?

A. Simmons: How many parents and community members do we have on the school councils, school improvement teams, site-based teams? This is where the rubber hits the road. What's the budget allocations for these schools? What's the hiring practice? How will the programs actually be implemented? And above all, the authority and accountability issues come into place. Also, we'll be looking to see how engaged parents are in their children's education. This can be the increased number of parents at PTA, but it's also about the real involvement of parents not just coming to the conference but actually being a part of the school, actually coming in and working in the classroom, volunteering in the school, learning how to be a better advocate for the student. The advocacy piece goes all the way to the school board.

Q. An NEA-affiliated school in Savannah, Ga., chose the turnaround model. What kind of conversations are going on there now about how the Priority Schools work will be implemented?

A. Simmons: There is always opportunity in a crisis. Initially, [the school staff] were told that everyone would lose their jobs and that was it. That's when they called us and said we need to have a conversation about getting this back on track. What happened was there was a lot of miscommunication in the community. Beach High School is the oldest African-American high school in Savannah, and people did not want to see it closed. They didn't want to see change come about, but at the same time, we knew that there were issues with the students and the school and that it was not performing in the area we wanted it to be.

One of the biggest pieces that made that a more smooth operation was bringing in the community. In the turnaround model, the governance changes, and the district has to assign one person who, for lack of a better word, is the turnaround czar. That turnaround person worked with the local association, and they had a series of meetings to make sure that the faculty understood what was happening, what the process was to replace [educators], and the criteria for rehiring. That was a locally developed set of criteria done with everyone involved. So that notion of having a collaborative culture is critical, particularly when you are talking about displacing and replacing faculty.

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