San Diego’s plan to reinvent teaching and learning echoes many of the key focal points of the Obama administration’s plan for advancing school reform across the country. These include the adoption of common, rigorous standards that prepare students for college and the workforce; recruiting and retaining outstanding teachers; turning around low-performing schools; building statewide data systems to track students from kindergarten through the workforce; and promoting excellence and innovation in U.S. schools.

Statewide data systems

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act directs $250 million to the creation of statewide data systems, and the proposed FY2010 federal budget includes a request for nearly $690 for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research division of the U.S. Department of Education (ED), to fund a longitudinal study of teachers and an international assessment of adult competencies. ED also will launch a national survey to examine preschool students’ participation in learning, as well as parental and family involvement in education.

Teachers need to know how well students are performing, and data can help reveal exactly what teachers need to focus on in the classroom, as well as how to teach those subject areas, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. ED will examine whether data on student achievement can be linked to teacher effectiveness.

"Obviously, technology is the basis of all–the backbone of everything we’re talking about, so it’s extremely important, both in creating strong data systems and giving children the chance to learn about technology from the earliest of ages," Duncan said of creating data systems and using that data in the most effective manner possible.

Duncan says data systems should inform education policies that will improve teaching practices.

Teacher quality

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers, especially math and science teachers and teachers in low-income classrooms, is another focus of Obama’s education reforms.

In a July speech at the National Education Association’s annual convention, Duncan said teacher unions should relax contract rules in order to recruit, reward, and retain highly effective educators, especially in low-performing schools that are in need of improvements.

"If we agree that the adults in these schools are failing these children, then we have to find the right people–and we can’t let our rules and regulations get in the way," Duncan said. "Children have only one chance to get an education."

He also encouraged the NEA to consider allowing student achievement data to factor into the process of evaluating teachers and deciding their compensation.

"Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation, or tenure decisions," Duncan said. "That would never make sense. But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible."

Rigorous academic standards

Duncan’s proposal to have rigorous, common academic standards has attracted much attention from education groups.

At the 2009 Governors Education Symposium in June, Duncan told governors that education reform starts locally, and ED’s job is to support the need for common standards.

Duncan said his background as a local educator makes him sensitive to the concern that common standards for each state would amount to federal over-reaching. "Education is a state and local issue. You pay 90 percent of the tab–and our job is to support leaders like you," he told the governors.

And while federal law does not mandate national standards, Duncan said, it does empower states to decide what students need to learn, and how to measure that knowledge.

"But common sense also tells you that kids in big cities like Newark and San Francisco–or small towns like Tarboro, North Carolina–are no different from each other. Standards shouldn’t change once you cross the Mississippi River or the Rocky Mountains. Kids competing for the same jobs should meet the same standards," he said.

Turning around underperforming schools

Both Duncan and Obama have been vocal about turning around underperforming schools, and Duncan has cited data showing that roughly 5,000 schools nationwide are characterized as underperforming. About half are in large cities, one-third are rural, and the rest are in suburbs and medium-sized towns.

"At a minimum, for a turnaround to succeed you have to change the school culture. In most cases, simply replacing the principal is not enough," he said. "We want transformation–not tinkering."

Duncan said the administration has four school-reform models in mind; some will work better in large cities, and others are more suited for smaller communities.

The first option, which Duncan did when he was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, is to award planning grants to schools in the fall, so that principals and teachers can develop and adapt curricula to serve students better. The children stay, but staff leave; teachers can reapply for their positions and some will be rehired, but most go elsewhere.

"In our view, at least half of the staff and the leadership should be completely new if you really want a culture change–and that may very well be a requirement of the [planning] grants," Duncan said.

The second option involves replacing school staff and leadership and turning the school over to a charter or for-profit management organization.

A third reform model keeps existing school staff, but establishes a rigorous evaluation and training system, changes and strengthens curriculum and instructional programming, increases learning opportunities for children during afternoons, weekends, and in the summer, and gives principals and leadership teams more flexibility with budgeting, staffing, and school calendars.

The final option for reform would close underperforming schools and enroll students in better schools.

"This may seem like surrender–but in some cases it’s the only responsible thing to do. It instantly improves the learning conditions for those kids and brings a failing school to a swift and thorough conclusion," Duncan said.

Encouraging innovation

U.S. schools will have a chance this fall to compete for part of $650 million in new "innovation" funds that are intended to reward districts that have designed and tested effective, scalable systems for boosting student achievement, improving failing schools, and increasing graduation rates.

The Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) is intended to expand programs that work in advancing the administration’s goals, while at the same time investing in programs that show promise.

ED’s programs to promote innovation have been "modest at best," said Duncan. He noted that President Obama has called for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world–an ambitious but attainable goal, he said.

"To reach that finish line, we need transformational change–the islands of excellence that exist in school districts have to become the norm," Duncan said.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education

Investing in Innovation Fund