"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Real SIGnificance of SIGs

In 2009 the DoED developed the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, designed to fund rapid turn around for chronically failing schools. Since then, 1,200 schools have received SIGs which are awarded up to $2 million for three years.  The total spent on SIGs so far is around $4 billion. DESE identified thirty schools in Missouri who qualify for SIG and has been responsible for doling out the $33 million given to the state so far. Eleven of those consistently low performing schools are are in St. Louis (Riverview Gardens, Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings and Normandy.) What has been their experience with SIGs?

According to the Post Dispatch, they have seen a lot of turn around, mostly in the principal department. Most of the principles hired to turn around failing schools left either during or right after their first year. Clearly it is a challenging position to hold.

Nationwide the DoEd reports that schools have seen double digit improvement in math scores in 60% of SIG schools in the first year. Applaud improvement but keep it in perspective. Going from a 12% proficiency to 22% is a step in the right direction, but certainly no miracle, nor where you would like to see things plateau.

The PD  does bring to light the one significant thing the SIGs may be doing. They may be weeding out all the highly educated, experienced leaders with great intentions and credentials who ultimately do not possess the right skill set to help students in low performing areas. One of the greatest myths in education is that learned people, armed with enough cash, can make all the difference in the world.  SIGs may finally be proving that myth wrong.

One of the principals highlighted in the PD is Vashon Principal Derrick Mitchell who, unlike many other SIG school principals, has been on the job since the program started two years ago. What gave Mitchell the edge over his peers? Maybe it was the fact that he is himself a Vashon graduate. Or maybe its because he is a parent of two sons who attend the school. But the biggest clue may be in his statement that, "the school's turnaround is personal."

Even more, he sees the problem beyond what the typical reformer does. He knows he has to be a "totally outside-of-the-box thinker."  He recognizes that education isn't one-size-fits-all, especially in struggling inner city schools. "We just delve in as far as we can go with them, to see what's going on personally, academically, socially," he said, describing a charge all of the SIG schools are expected to undertake. "It's, in essence, taking the whole child and looking at him or her in such a way so we can try to change the thinking and employ different strategies or interventions to try to move that kid forward academically."

This is intensive therapy, on multiple levels, by many people, who take it personally. This is a peek at what it takes to "close the performance gap" between the subgroups (as they like to call them in academic administration.)  It is certainly an admirable goal, but we are beginning to see that what is needed here does not fit any traditional description of a public school. And it is not cheap. Two million dollars per school.  We still don't know the long term impacts of these efforts. Will this money be the education stimulus that will jump start these student's long term desire/ability to learn? Will it be enough to get them into college? Is college (with all its associated time and debt) the right goal?

These are the "tough" questions that need to be answered, not "How do we quantify teacher performance so that we can have a neat little formula to base their pay on?"  Society needs to answer "How much are we willing to pay to bring how many students up to what level of proficiency?" There are real limitations on all those factors. We do not have endless pockets to fund personalized education for all. Some students will never get it. There isn't enough time for everyone to learn  everything there is to know. At some point you have to stop the 100% focus on education (k-12) and start earning your own way. So how do we pick what to teach? Does everyone need to learn from the same subset, or would we as a society be better served if different geographic areas picked specialties and developed their own subset? How can we institute things like Common Core Standards if we have not answered these questions at the very local level where the funding and effort to make them happen really occurs?

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