by Christen Smith in Capitolwire

Education leaders say money alone won’t transform the bottom five percent of low performing schools.

It takes a cultural revolution, they say, unlike the “path of least resistance” so many districts choose to take.

“We have learned some hard lessons trying to turn around our schools. Lesson number one is money is necessary, but not sufficient,” said Linda Lane, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. “Katie Haycock of Ed Trust said that what struggling students need is not like a vaccination — one and done. It is more like good nutrition over the course of their pre-k to 12 educational program. Our teachers and leaders also need time.”

“The reforms I’ve seen are afterschool tutoring programs, Saturday make-up classes and i-Pads for every student. These have little or no effect in these schools,” said Richard Wertheimer, a former teacher in Pittsburgh Public School District and co-founder of the City Charter High School. “This is an issue of the culture of the school. It’s not the curriculum. It’s not the content. It’s about the values and the beliefs that everyone brings to it. Turnaround is just the wrong word.”

Wertheimer, Lane and other school leaders and advocacy organizations testified during a joint hearing for the House and Senate Education Committees Tuesday about how the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act should be implemented in Pennsylvania — specifically with regard to the bottom five percent of low-performing schools who are eligible for Title 1 funds to “turnaround” student performance.

While all testifiers agreed that high concentrations of poverty, crime and violence undermine traditional Title 1 interventions, Wertheimer pushed lawmakers to consider drastic methods to “rebuild” failing schools.

“Title 1 … it hasn’t worked,” he said. “We should turn the whole thing on its ear. Before I would give money to a school, they would have to say, we are closing it, re-staffing it, and using a proven model of success.”

“He hit the nail right on the head,” said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN. “It’s not surprising that most districts chose to implement the least aggressive reforms. Money is absolutely necessary, but money alone is not a school improvement plan. When given multiple options, districts are almost always going to choose the path of least resistance and the problem is we allowed them to cop out without making the big wholesale changes.”

Mike Wang, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership — an organization which has granted money to improve some of the city’s “Renaissance Schools” — said the statistics show current methods haven’t made a difference.

“When it comes to the schools that are lowest performing, it almost doesn’t matter what metric you use. The amount of consistency is unbelievable,” he said. “What you find is a real stagnation among those schools in the bottom. You don’t see a whole lot of movement despite a lot of different interventions.”

Wang continued: “There is a clear message here. If we are really focused on changing outcomes as opposed to compliance with federal law … we can’t nibble at the edges. We have to be bold. We have to be comprehensive in our approach.”

Wertheimer suggested schools complete Request for Proposals to secure Title 1 funds and agree to a complete redesign — from staffing to curriculum to creating supports designed for the specific, and overwhelming, needs of students in the lowest performing schools.

“The bottom five percent of schools serve children that are devastated by life’s circumstances,” he said. “These students are often living in conditions that one might compare to a war zone: daily gunfire, violence and crime. Traditional schools are not meant to address this population. Many teachers are working with a group of students they don’t understand.”

Choosing teachers who want to help at-risk students and giving them time to develop effective teaching methods, Lane says, has made all the difference in some of her district’s schools.

“I have learned, and told our principals, that we are winter, not summer, gardeners,” she said. “Summer gardeners plant seeds and within a few days that first monocot or dicot pokes through the soil. This is more like planting bulbs and knowing it will be a good, long time before the first shoots push through the ground.”

Wertheimer said a school policy that allows teachers to work with the same students over several years has a “profound effect” on a teacher’s pedagogical skills, while also allowing time for students to build trust.

In his written testimony, Wertheimer further depicts the unorthodox nature of student-teacher relationships at flourishing turnaround schools.

“Veteran teachers in successful high poverty schools often describe how their students want, in fact almost demand, a relationship with them,” he writes. “I’ve heard the following comment hundreds of times during my career: ‘what these children need is love, discipline, support and consistency…it is not unusual for my students to call me Dad or Grandpa.’

“Traditional schools are set up as meritocracies. If you work hard, buckle down and pay attention you will succeed. We rank order GPAs. We let the top students speak at graduation. We split the school up and track the brighter kids into special classes or nicer schools and track the ‘slower kids or bad kids’ into separate classes or low achieving schools. Achievement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

And if a district can’t or won’t rebuild a low-performing school to improve student and teacher morale, Wertheimer says turning the building over to charter operators is the next best option.

“Charters allow for a much quicker uptake,” he said. “To be honest, everyone thought charters were going to get to deal with the nicest, most wonderful kids and what we found out is charters became the vehicles for the have-nots. We need to go to the good ones and we need to emulate them and we would be crazy not to go to them if the districts can’t figure it out.”

Lane said well-performing charters were meant to be models for their public school counterparts, but the “politics” of the state’s funding system has gotten in the way.

“Because of the way we are set up to compete, it’s hard to share,” she said. “The politics of the situation have been very difficult … if there would be a way to remove that, that could really help us work together better and on behalf of kids.”

The idea of “charterizing” a failing school isn’t new to lawmakers. Former Gov. Tom Corbett authorized such a recovery plan for York City School District in the months before he lost his re-election bid to Gov. Tom Wolf.

It was a controversial recommendation that drew ire from legislative Democrats, teachers’ unions and local school board officials who questioned the motives of the Corbett administration and the company chosen to run the schools.

After Wolf, who calls York County home, was sworn into office, he doubled down on his opposition to the charter plan. The state-appointed school district’s receiver, Dave Meckley, resigned two months later, taking his charterization plan with him.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, declined to comment Thursday on Wertheimer’s proposals, though the association is on record about its disapproval for the failed York City School District recovery plan.

Diane McNaughton, spokeswoman for Senate Education Committee Majority Chairman Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said Thursday all of the testifiers “brought something important to the table,” but that Wertheimer’s testimony “made the most impact.”

She added: “Sen. Smucker said he was particularly impressed with Dr. Wertheimer and wanted to study his testimony more.”


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