REDESIGNING LOW-PERFORMING SCHOOLS
It is as much the duty of the union to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract.
I. Why We Are Concerned
America's public school system has always been one of its most important institutions - charged with preparing all students for responsible citizenship and productive adult lives. To fulfill this mission and defend universal public education, the AFT has dedicated itself to raising the standards of academic achievement and student conduct in all schools. We believe that our students and teachers are as capable as any in the world. Given the standards-based reforms we advocate - including clear grade-by-grade standards for student achievement, professional development, curricula and assessments aligned to the standards, and promotion policies and other incentives that reward students for working hard and meeting the standards - our schools can match or surpass the accomplishments of the highest-achieving nations. We also recognize, however, that some schools and some students will need more attention than others. Urgent action must be taken to improve the nation's lowest-performing schools, and we believe that it is the union's responsibility to participate in the development of workable solutions - including, where necessary, starting all over again.
All children need and deserve good schools - especially those children who are most vulnerable and who, without a good education, are doomed to a continuous and vicious cycle of poverty and failure. While this is not an easy undertaking, the price of continued inaction is intolerable - for the students, many of whom emerge from high school unprepared for further education or a skilled trade; for parents, who want the best for their children; for the school staff, many of whom struggle heroically to compensate for the larger failures of the school system; and for the nation, which must bear the burden of lower economic productivity, increased social service funding, higher crime rates, and a less informed citizenry.
In recent years, the very existence of low-performing schools has served to bring the entire system of public education into question. News stories feature schools where few students graduate, and too many of those who do are barely literate - schools with chronically low test scores and conditions that are so dirty and dangerous that staff and students alike are afraid to walk the halls. In this context, school vouchers and other privatization schemes have begun to gain favor, despite the fact that the abandonment of common public schools would leave the nation more divided, and unequal, than ever. The politically expedient, but educationally bankrupt, policy of "school reconstitution" - stigmatizing and replacing staff, regardless of competence or quality, and without any specific plans to improve teaching or learning - is being implemented or advocated by some courts and some federal, state, and district officials. The new faculty in "reconstituted" schools, however, are likely to have the same inadequate resources, poor professional development, and lack of access to research-tested programs that their predecessors had, while having even less classroom experience to fall back upon.
We cannot afford any more political quick-fixes that will inflict additional injury on students, as well as staff. We need educationally sound solutions to the problems of failing schools, and we need them now.
II. What Should Be Done
As the union representing teachers, classroom paraprofessionals, and other school-related personnel in many of the areas plagued by chronic school failure, it is incumbent upon us to advocate and, where possible, negotiate, for improvement - always insisting that the actions taken are educationally sound and effective. We must take an active role, from the outset, to ensure that teachers and other school staff are treated professionally, are involved in decision making, and are part of the solution. While social and economic inequities can be obstacles to the delivery of equal educational opportunity, there are schools around the country where "at-risk" students meet high academic standards. We can and must learn from these schools. The challenge before us is to take the research on programs and pedagogical approaches that have been proven to work, and use it to ensure that children and schools succeed.
As educators, we are eager to embrace this challenge and willing to shoulder a full share of the work that meeting it will require. We have also, however, lived through too many educational fads and ill-conceived improvement ideas to accept all reform proposals on faith. We cannot support yet another round of quick-fix gimmicks or ask our members and students to suffer the consequences of painful remedies that have little chance of improving matters. Instead, we seek to help shape and implement effective intervention policies that:
Are grounded in high academic standards
The first essential step in improving low-performing schools - and the U.S. education system as a whole - is to establish clear standards for what students are expected to know and be able to do. This would ensure that all students are held to the same high standards and exposed to the same rich curriculum, regardless of social class or neighborhood, and help put an end to the unequal, uninspiring course of study that many disadvantaged students get locked into from an early age. Without clear standards, substandard work is almost impossible to define, making it that much harder for teachers to spot problems early, demand that students get the extra help they might need, and hold students accountable. Pending the implementation of serious standards-based reform at the district, state, and national level, schools should select improvement programs in which clear and challenging student achievement standards are embedded.
Enforce high standards of behavior
Without clear standards of conduct, a small number of unruly students can disrupt an entire school and impede the learning of all students. The consequences for misbehavior must be fairly and consistently enforced. Students who cannot or will not abide by these guidelines should be placed in an appropriate alternative setting until they demonstrate that they can meet the expected standards of behavior.
Use criteria for the identification of low-performing schools that are clear and understood by all stakeholders
Just as academic standards help students understand - and meet - academic expectations, schools with clear performance standards have a better chance of catching and correcting problems before intervention becomes necessary. The use of widely accepted criteria for low school performance - valid and reliable assessments that show widespread student failure, high levels of violence and disruption, poor management, etc. - will reduce the risk that any school will be misidentified for unfair or arbitrary reasons, and will also give staff, students, and parents a framework by which to gauge the school's progress.
Address the particular needs of the individual school
To ensure that intervention and assistance plans are targeted effectively - and that states' and districts' limited resources are used efficiently - school systems must not only identify which schools are failing, but also why. Thus, the initial identification of low-performing schools isn't enough; it must be followed by comprehensive internal (staff-driven) and external (state- or district-driven) evaluations which can help pinpoint the reasons for failure. Internal factors, such as poor management, staff turnover, unfocused curriculum, or the lack of an effective discipline policy may be critical. Obstacles and challenges, such as high student mobility rates, an influx of non-English-speaking students, inadequate funding, limited access to high-quality professional development, neighborhood crime, or lack of social services in the community, also must be taken into account. Such findings do not change the imperative for corrective action, but their recognition and analysis help form the basis for the development of solutions.
Are backed by solid research
While each low-performing school will have a somewhat different set of needs and priorities, no school - especially one that is already foundering - should be expected to find success by reinventing the wheel. Instead, once the school's most pressing problems have been identified, the improvement process should focus on enabling teachers to choose those programs and instructional practices that have a solid base of research to demonstrate their effectiveness. Facilitation is crucial to this process.
Involve staff and provide them with the professional development, time, and resources they will need to be effective.
Research and common sense tell us that a committed and supportive staff is vital to the success of any school improvement plan. Therefore, to the greatest possible extent, school staff should be given an active role in diagnosing the school's weaknesses and selecting the plans for improvement. It has also been demonstrated that the successful replication of any research-based reform program is largely dependent on the faithfulness of the implementation. Thus, adequate time and resources must be committed to providing all instructional staff (i.e., teachers and classroom paraprofessionals) with the professional development, tools, and materials they need to get the best results.
III. Implementing Change
Just as each school's specific problems will vary, so will their level of severity and intractability. Therefore, we recommend that each state or district intervention policy include a continuum of intervention options.
Many low-performing schools, once offered the proper resources, support, and technical assistance, will leap to make the necessary changes. After an outside audit and a facilitated self-analysis, the principal, faculty, and support staff should have the opportunity to develop and implement their own improvement plan, based on the principles described above.
In other cases, the staff may have been subjected to so many years of poor management, inadequate resources, and futile improvement fads that the school culture - including the relationships between and among staff and students - is so dysfunctional that guided self-improvement is unworkable. For these schools, the internal and external evaluations may indicate a more aggressive intervention strategy. In such cases - or where, after a predetermined time period, it is found that guided self-improvement is not working - the district should discuss specific, additional interventions with the union(s) representing the school's staff. For example, the district might require that the administrative team be replaced and that the staff, in collaboration with the new administrators, vote to select a new academic school-improvement program from a menu of research-based options, pre-selected by a joint union(s)-district panel.
Since staff support is crucial for the effective implementation of a successful academic plan, any faculty member who prefers not to work with the adopted model should be allowed to transfer with dignity, and a team of master teachers with training and experience in the selected model should be recruited into the school. Identification and placement of these "lead" teachers could be made by agreement between the union and the district, with negotiated incentives for such service. Since low-performing schools often suffer from extremely high rates of faculty turnover, it is unlikely that any staff would need to be displaced by this kind of intervention strategy. However, if a limited number of faculty members had to be moved for the academic model to be properly implemented, the dignified treatment of staff should be guaranteed through enhanced or existing contract language (or, in non-bargaining states, policies negotiated between the union(s) and the district) governing involuntary transfers.
If, despite such improvement and intervention efforts, student performance fails to improve within a reasonable time frame and more drastic measures are required (i.e., closing the school), then the union(s) should insist on an educationally sound approach, such as opening a new school with a proven educational program. In no case will "reconstitution" - simply replacing the adults in the building - be accepted as a remedy. If a new school is opened to replace the closed school - whether or not it is located in the same physical plant - it should be designed around a research-based academic improvement plan shaped by stakeholders, including the union(s) and a new administrative team. Staff should receive enough information to make an informed decision about whether they wish to apply. Parents and students should also receive information about the school's new vision of teaching and learning, allowing them to decide if they want to opt out and transfer to another public school.
For instructional positions, staffing procedures should follow the same or enhanced contract language or district regulations that govern any other school closing or the staffing of any new school or new school model (such as a magnet school). Instructional staff affected by the closing should have the right to apply, based on their certification, training, and/or experience with the new model, seniority rights and other negotiated criteria, and should be given priority consideration by agreement between the district and the union(s). Those not selected by the new school must have transfer rights to other schools, without stigma attached, and be assured of job security. Since school redesign should focus on implementing a proven instructional model, except where justified by exceptional circumstances, school-related (non-instructional) personnel should not automatically be displaced. Instead, the new administrative team should deal with any performance problems individually, using existing evaluation and personnel policies.
Under all circumstances, the union will continue to fight for the high academic standards, rigorous curricula, quality teaching, student accountability, and appropriate supports that we believe are needed to ensure that every child succeeds.