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Judy Chu: Here is How to Strengthen Struggling Schools

Today I feature a guest blog from California Congresswoman Judy Chu, who will be one of our speakers at next Tuesday's Teach-in -- Turning Around Failing Policies. Congresswoman Chu is that rarest of people -- a policymaker who actually understands education by virtue of her firsthand experience as a Community College professor for twenty years, including 13 years in East Los Angeles. She has put her understanding to work in creating a proposal now before Congress, called Strengthening Our Schools. Here are her thoughts:

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In April, the students, parents and faculty at Elliott School in Lincoln, Nebraska learned district administrators had reassigned their principal, De Ann Currin, to another school for next year.

But school district officials praise Currin and her work. "It's hard to imagine a principal with more mission and passion for the children than De Ann," said Lincoln's associate superintendent. And they call the move "repugnant". However, the current requirements for schools to qualify for the Administration's School Improvement Grants (SIG) forced the district's hands.

Elliott School needed to adopt one of four "turnaround models", or else it wouldn't get a piece of the $3.5 billion in federal funds available to fix failing schools. Even though Elliott opted for the least intrusive one, the Transformation Model, it (like all the others) still requires the current principal's dismissal. So Currin was out.

When the price for fixing our schools is the dismissal of the educators best situated to do so, there's something wrong. The essential problem is that current policy focuses more on finding someone to blame for poor schools than finding solutions to fix them. Indeed, the Administration's requirements that underperforming districts adopt one of four rigid turnaround models, without focusing on external factors on academic performance is mistake.

It ignores the mountains of data that proves even the best teachers and schools will fail students who can't focus on learning because of hunger, abuse or a lack of English proficiency. And it makes teachers the scapegoats for poverty problems faced by the entire community. At schools like Elliott, where 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, we should be extending our hands - not pointing our fingers.
The most frustrating thing is that the administration knows this. By pushing for programs like Promise Neighborhoods, it's quite clear that the importance of supporting our children outside of the classroom isn't lost on Secretary Duncan or President Obama. Unfortunately, in the SIG program, it's simply nowhere to be seen.

That's why I've proposed a different approach, the Strengthen Our Schools (SOS) Framework, which ensures this omission in our nation's education policy won't be a permanent one. The SOS approach provides flexible turnaround approaches that meet the unique needs of America's individual communities and school districts. More importantly, it addresses the problems like poverty, lack of parental involvement and language challenges that plague the student populations of our most troubled schools. Because, if we don't address the obstacles our students face outside school walls, we'll never turnaround what goes on within them.
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The subject of "turn-around schools" was the focus of the Teachers' Letters to Obama teach-in Tuesday, July 13. We heard from Congresswoman Judy Chu, who has introduced legislation in Congress called Strengthening Our Schools, which offers a much sounder framework for school improvement. We also spoke with Diane Ravitch, who has been a vocal critic of NCLB and its step-children, Race to the Top and the ESEA Blueprint. The recording of the dynamic session can be heard HERE.

What do you think of Congresswoman Chu's proposal? Will you join us on Tuesday to discuss these ideas with her and Diane Ravitch?


(image used by permission)

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