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Congresswoman Chu's Proposal for Struggling Schools: Let's Transform, Not Tinker!

This month we have been intensively focusing on the issues surrounding struggling schools, and the Department of Education's heavy-handed set of options for such schools. Today I am sharing a guest post from two advisers to Congresswoman Judy Chu, who explain some of the key elements of the proposals she has offered.

Guest post by Howard Adelman & Linda Taylor

As Secretary Duncan has recognized, turning around schools that are not doing well is a formidable task. It is also a task about which many ambiguities and controversies swirl (see our recent policy analysis report entitled: Turning Around, Transforming, and Continuously Improving Schools: Federal Proposals are Still Based on a Two Rather than a Three Component Blueprint (Center for Mental Health in Schools, 2010 online at http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/turning.pdf ).

"The truth is," as Joanne Weiss (U.S. Department of Education) has stated, "we don't know exactly how to turn around schools. The truth is also that excuses and inaction don't help students who are trapped in these schools. It's a real dilemma, not a fake one."

Given all the uncertainties associated with turning around, transforming, and continuously improving schools, it is essential to keep analyzing deficiencies in blueprints and roadmaps guiding policy and practice. Such analyses are especially important with respect to low performing and failing schools and provide a basis for developing new directions.

It is important for everyone to understand that Congresswoman Chu's report constitutes more than a critique of the four turnaround strategies. While it's inevitable that respondents to the Chu report will continue to focus mainly on the battle over the four turnaround models, it will be unfortunate if the unique contributions of her plan to strengthen our schools are given short shrift.

In particular, the Chu plan elevates the focus on enabling students to have an equal opportunity to succeed at school by underscoring the need to comprehensively and systemically address barriers to learning and teaching and re engage disconnected students. This emphasis makes it the first federal level proposal designed to move school improvement policy from the type of two to three component blueprint that our analyses indicate is needed as a primary and essential facet of school turnaround intervention. The intent is to provide a unifying concept and umbrella under which all resources currently expended for student and learning supports are woven together.

We note that some critics of the Chu plan continue to marginalize the focus on the third component for school improvement. Rather than appreciating that it is a primary and essential component, they characterize it as focused mainly on matters such as family engagement and community health and social services. Much more is involved.

With respect to addressing barriers to learning and teaching, Chu's report emphasizes that learning supports need to be organized into a comprehensive system for a full continuum of interventions to enable every school to better address barriers to learning and re engage disconnected students. She outlines that key strategies include:

• building teacher capacity to re engage disconnected students and maintain their engagement
• providing support for the full range of transitions that students and families encounter as they negotiate school and grade changes
• responding to, and where feasible, preventing behavioral and emotional crises
• increasing community and family involvement and support
• facilitating student and family access to effective services and special assistance as needed.

In addition to promoting healthy development, the full continuum of interventions mentioned spans systems to (1) prevent problems, (2) respond as early after onset as feasible, and (3) provide for severe and chronic problems. Each of the strategies she mentions encompasses complex arenas that must be fleshed out at each level of the continuum.

Our research over many years has clarified that school improvement planning and implementation has substantially ignored most of this leaving many good teachers in the untenable position of having too many students for whom well designed and implemented instruction simply is not enough. This continues to be the case as seen in the first analyses of the Race to the Top applications.

Moreover, the federal administration's proposed Blueprint for Reform continues to primarily emphasize two component thinking. The blueprint states that enabling equity of opportunity requires moving toward comparability in resources between high and low poverty schools, rigorous and fair accountability for all levels, and meeting the needs of diverse learners ... by providing appropriate instruction and access to a challenging curriculum along with additional supports and attention where needed.

However, sparse attention is given to additional supports and attention where needed. The commitment to equity and opportunity for all students is stated specifically as the third of five priorities. The closest the document comes to delineating supports to meet this priority are sections on Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners and Other Diverse Learners (i.e., students eligible for compensatory and special education) and Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students.

In both instances, what the blueprint indicates amounts mostly to tinkering rather than system transformation.

While there is language about a new approach, there is continuing neglect of extensive systemic deficits related to interventions targeting student diversity, disability, and differences. The limitations of the blueprint with respect to this priority are underscored by applying two lenses that are not widely used:

(1) how schools try to directly address barriers to learning and teaching and

(2) how they try to re engage students who have become disconnected from classroom instruction.

These two lenses bring into focus the considerable resources currently expended on student and learning supports and illuminate fundamental flaws in how these resources are used. And, they help expand understanding of the full range of systemic changes needed not only to prevent and reduce the problems cited in A Blueprint for Reform, but that are essential to reducing student (and teacher) dropout rates, narrowing the achievement gap, countering the plateau effect related to student population achievement scores, and in general, alleviating inequities.

To illustrate the point, we define the third component as focused on addressing barriers to learning and teaching and designate it as an enabling or learning supports component. As with the other two components, an enabling or learning supports component needs to be pursued in policy and practice as essential and fully integrated with the other two in order to combat marginalization and fragmentation. As outlined, the component provides a blueprint and roadmap for transforming the many pieces of student and learning supports into a comprehensive and cohesive system at all levels. It is stressed that the three component framework does nothing to detract from the fact that a strong academic program is the foundation from which all other school based interventions must flow. Rather, an enabling or learning supports component provides an essential systemic way to address factors that interfere with students benefiting from improvements that are made in academic instruction.

We suggest that only by unifying student and learning supports will it be feasible to develop a comprehensive system to directly address many of the complex factors interfering with schools accomplishing their mission. And only by developing such a system will it be feasible to facilitate the emergence of a school environment that fosters successful, safe, and healthy students and staff. It is emphasized that school climate is an emergent quality that stems from how schools provide and coalesce on a daily basis the components dedicated to instruction, learning supports, and management/governance.

Across the country, pioneering work to enhance student and learning supports heralds movement toward a comprehensive system for addressing factors interfering with learning and teaching. For example, two states, Louisiana and Iowa, have completed designs for this third component (i.e., a Comprehensive System of Learning Supports to address barriers to learning and teaching and re engage disconnected students) and are moving to build capacity to implement it. (Hawaii also initiated such a framework, entitled a Comprehensive Student Support System, but has yet to implement it effectively.) A number of districts in other states also are moving in this direction.

Thus, whether or not the impending reauthorization of the ESEA incorporates a three component blueprint, we anticipate more and more movement in this direction at state, regional, district, and school levels. The call for ensuring equity and opportunity for all students demands no less.

*******************

Over many years in the roles of classroom teacher, district support staff, school administrators, and university researchers and teachers, Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor have worked with schools, districts, and state departments to enhance equity of opportunity for all students. As co-directors of the federally funded national Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, their current focus is on systemic reforms to enhance school and community efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students.

What do you think? Does Congresswoman Chu's proposal offer struggling schools a better chance to transform?

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