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Report: Many officials willing to replace half of staff to turn around schools

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 5:23 PM

Education officials across the country have replaced the principals and at least half of the staff in about 150 struggling schools to obtain federal aid, the Obama administration disclosed Thursday.

In several hundred other cases, principals have been replaced and other major steps taken as part of the administration's unprecedented $3.5 billion campaign to rejuvenate thousands of the nation's lowest-performing schools.

The initiative, which reflects President Obama's get-tough policy on school reform, is likely to be central to the coming debate in Congress over revision of the No Child Left Behind law.

Thursday's report on the school improvement grant program shows that despite protests this year over proposals to fire large numbers of teachers in Central Falls, R.I., and elsewhere, many state and local officials are willing to replace half or more of a school's faculty in an effort to turn it around.

What's more, some of those turnaround attempts are moving ahead without opposition from teachers unions.

On Dec. 1, the president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a tour of G. James Gholson Middle School in Prince George's County.

The Landover school, which has failed to meet academic targets for the past eight years, won a $2.7 million turnaround grant. This fall, it has two new co-principals, and half its staff is new. Three other county middle schools - Benjamin Stoddert, Drew Freeman and Thurgood Marshall - are on a similar path.

Van Roekel said Thursday that his appearance at Gholson was not meant to endorse a fire-the-faculty strategy. But he said, "I talked to the local [union] there and was impressed with the level of collaboration and parental engagement."

He said the NEA, with 3.2 million members, in general prefers other strategies for fixing schools besides staff replacement. But he added: "We're not going to ignore kids in any school. The success of the students is what we have to focus on."

Many other schools nationwide targeted for major shakeups are represented by the 1.5-million member American Federation of Teachers.

Duncan said he was pleased at the high level of participation in the school improvement campaign. "The story is that there hasn't been screaming," he said. "There hasn't been outcry. Folks are just doing the hard work together. Folks are taking this work extraordinarily seriously."

Education Department data on the initiative, which is funded by the 2009 economic stimulus law, offer the most detailed look yet at efforts underway to overhaul (and in some cases shut down) at least 730 low-performing schools in 44 states.

The report had no information on schools in the District or in Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana and New Hampshire.

School officials were given four options to obtain funding. They could replace staff and give a new principal additional powers, a model known as turnaround. They could shut down a school. They could hand management to an independent operator, such as a charter organization, known as a restart. Or they could replace the principal (with a few exceptions), overhaul instruction, increase lesson time and take other steps to improve academics. That option is known as transformation.

Taken together, those remedies are significantly more intrusive than fixes prescribed in No Child Left Behind , enacted in 2002 under President George W. Bush.

In the program, transformation is the most popular option. Data show officials have made that choice in seven out of every 10 cases. Transformation is the model for school improvement at T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, for example, and at 10 other schools elsewhere in Virginia.

The turnaround model was chosen in 21 percent of cases, including at least 29 schools in California and six in Maryland. Five percent of schools were restarted and three percent closed.

Obama raised a furor among educators in March when he expressed support for Rhode Island officials who were moving to fire teachers at Central Falls High School. Subsequently, Rhode Island officials shifted course and kept the school's faculty.

The episode suggested that Obama and Duncan would encounter massive resistance to reforms that entail replacing teachers. But that has not necessarily proven to be the case.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor, said staff replacement has been tried in many places since the 1980s - often without success. Good teachers often don't want to work at a school labeled a failure. She said that strong leadership and a comprehensive improvement plan are essential. "There are ways to reboot a school that can be thoughtful," she said.

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