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Close 5000 Schools in Five Years …

This week President Obama proposed closing and reopening 1000 failing schools per year for the next five years. Where did this come from! Officially the notion was floated by Secretary Duncan while making opening remarks to an audience at the Brookings Institute in Washington this past Monday. But why now?

Is it puzzling that just as the secretary embarks on a “national listening tour” to seek the opinions of educators and parents regarding the impact of NCLB , we hear of yet another five year plan to deal with failing schools? Perhaps the timing of this may have something to do with an article published in the New Yorker last week – The Instigator: A crusader’s plan to remake failing schools – a profile of Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, California’s largest non-profit charter school operator.

Barr is described as a curmudgeon and revolutionary with a take no prisoners attitude when it comes to urban school reform. Green Dot has had some dramatic success in turning around high schools in LA. More to the point, however, according to the article, back in March Barr was invited to Washington to meet with Arne Duncan. To his surprise the meeting apparently got quickly to specifics and Duncan revealed his thinking about “committing several billion dollars of the education stimulus package to a “Locke-style” takeover and transformation of the lowest performing one per cent of schools across the country, at least four thousand of them, in the next several years,” (Alain Leroy Locke High School is the school in the Watts neighborhood of LA which Barr has taken over). Duncan was so enthusiastic that Barr returned to LA with a vision for “Green Dot America” and secured a tentative green light for a partnership with AFT president Randi Weingarten.

Few would argue that there are likely a thousand schools among the nearly 100,000 in the United States that are performing so poorly that they could benefit from a significant intervention, but now to satisfy the numerical elegance so often demanded inside the beltway, the “few thousand school idea” discussed with Barr in March has become “1000 a year for five years.”

Duncan’s hallmark in Chicago was his oft-cited pragmatism. While I am not opposed to pragmatism, it should give us some pause that we now have a totally new phenomenon in American education – a deeply flawed law and a secretary of education with a $5 billion dicretionary war chest. The stimulus bill has become the proxy law that guides the administration and consequently every district that benefits from the monies.

Once again, here are the broad outlines of the conditions of acceptance for receiving stimulus funds as expressed by Secretary Duncan at Brookings:

We must improve the quality of standards and assessments so that students are leaving our schools ready to succeed in college and prepared to contribute in the workforce. We must build data systems that measure growth, link student achievement to teacher quality, and tell us whether students are on track to graduate ready for college. We must recruit and train the best teachers to be in our nation’s classrooms, particularly where they are needed most in communities, whether it’s inner city, urban or rural areas that all too often have been underserved for decades. And we must turn around the lowest performing schools, the ones that we know aren’t doing the jobs, the ones that we now call “dropout factories.” (emphasis added)

And he went on to speak further on turning around low performing schools:

Sometimes the prospect of turning around schools might seem a little bit daunting, but if we set realistic and doable goals, that job is absolutely possible. Think about this for a minute. We have about 100,000 schools here in America. If we turn around just the bottom 1 percent, the bottom 1,000 schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom, and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children. As we commit to turning around schools each year, we must also stay the course with them and use what we learn each year to inform the next generation of turnarounds. This is a manageable goal, and we have neither time nor money to waste.

Am I the only one who would like a better idea of where the administration will take the reauthorization? According to a recent post on Michelle McNeill’s blog at EdWeek, the administration hopes to have a framework for reauthorization by early fall, next in line after health care. As far as where the “listening tour” will be at any given time, there is apparently no advance schedule published.

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