Setting the Standard in Education

NY Times Misconstrues School Turnaround

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Joyce Irvine was removed as principal. Michael Winerip blames the government.

On Sunday, Michael Winerip wrote an article about the travesty that the federal government could cause a good principal to be removed because of the way schools are measured. I read this article and was dismayed by how Winerip could completely get the facts wrong. Now, I’m not talking about little facts here. I’m talking about the very premise of the article. He claims that the principal was taken from her post, because it was the easiest path for the district in its turnaround effort, despite them seeing her as extremely capable. This is completely absurd. Schools fail to make AYP all the time and have to consider one of the five restructuring options. Usually, they pick the fifth:

    (v) Any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms, such as significant changes in the school’s staffing and governance, to improve student academic achievement in the school and that has substantial promise of enabling the school to make adequate yearly progress as defined in the State plan under section 1111(b)(2).

As you can tell, the wording of this subsection is extremely vague. The district can do “any other major restructuring…that makes fundamental reforms.” Essentially, as long as they call it major, they can do it. Many schools hire consulting firms or add computer math programs – pretty much anything not to have to fire large numbers of teachers and staff members. I’m not sure how Winerip justifies excluding this possibility in his article, other than trying to sell newspapers.

Alexander Russo suggests a few more things that the article got wrong. First, getting rid of a principal is the exception and not the rule in cases of school turnaround. Second, the principal in question wasn’t even laid off. She was moved to a role overseeing principals in the central office – hardly “removing” her. Finally, the story makes it sound like the school was rated so low because of recent immigrants, but test scores for those who have entered the district within the past year do not count. These are all good points, but they seem to be lightly hitting the problems with the article without delving into the meat. Andrew Rotterham at Eduwonk points out one fact that completely changes the story, though. Not only has the school had poor scores, but it has actually been moving backwards! Rotterham completely dismantles Winerip, questioning his history of leaving out the facts.

It’s easy to try to blame the big bad government for ruining the life of the small guy, but it’s never as clear cut as that.

UPDATE: It looks like I was basing my assessment on the old models of turnaround. See the comments below to find out what I got wrong and why the district still had other options.

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  1. Two comments: first, isn’t Michael Winerip a man? I don’t understand why you refer to him as “she” and “her” throughout this piece. This _New York Times_ article even features a picture of Winerip, where he looks plenty masculine and is referred to as a “dad”: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/fashion/23genb.html.

    Second, there is no longer a fifth restructuring option. You link to a DoE document that is very outdated at this point. There were five restructuring options under NCLB, but that changed with ARRA and new rules around School Improvement Grants. The fifth option was killed; only four remain. For more information, see http://www2.ed.gov/programs/sif/nastid2.pdf.

    • Thanks for the comments. On the first point, I misread the name as “Michelle” initially and went back to change it, but must have forgotten to change the pronouns. Thanks for catching it. Secondly, you are right, there are four restructuring options, but “transformation” wasn’t eliminated, it was altered. I couldn’t find the wording for the new options before, but have since found them. The new possibilities are transformation, turnaround, restart, and closure. Transformation and turnaround both require the principal to be replaced if they’ve been there longer than two years and restart is not available in Vermont, because of their strict laws about CMOs.
      I will admit I am incorrect in my assessment. However, it still stands that the district had other options. There are examples of districts who’ve played “musical chairs” with their principals, so if they wanted to, they could have shuffled her to another school. They could’ve also worked around the Vermont ban on charters. One of the options within the restart model is to hire an EMO that provides “whole-school operation” services. The district stays as the LEA; thus, it is not a charter. So in a sense, yes, the easiest option for the district was to fire the principal, but that doesn’t mean that was the best choice for them. Nor does it mean the federal government caused a good principal to be fired. The district made that choice. You can read the Ed Dept’s newest SIG requirements here: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/sif/finalreq20100128.doc

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