Category Archives: School Governance

School Behind Bars: A Q&A with Nebraska’s Randy Farmer

There are nearly 2,600 schools across the country providing education to young people who are held in secure justice facilities. One of them is a short-term facility in Nebraska called the Pathfinder Education Program, and I spoke with its educational director, Randy Farmer, to learn more about what his job is like and what he wishes more people knew about how best to support students like his.

Pathfinder provides education services for young people detained for legal offenses in Lancaster County, Nebraska and awaiting court decisions about their need for services. The program is operated by the Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, and Farmer’s role is similar to that of a school principal. He has worked with the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS) the last twelve years as an advisor, board member, and Education Council president, and he has worked with the Nebraska Department of Education on a standing committee to improve educational services for youth in out-of-home placements.

Tell us a bit about your role and what you do. What’s a typical day like?

The Pathfinder Education Program supports a unique and diverse population of youth who are experiencing serious traumatic life events. We offer educational services as an opportunity to renew a love of learning and provide a continuation of their path toward graduation, and we follow up with transition supports in collaboration with the community and juvenile justice system. These are bright, curious, and creative young people — they can be a tremendous asset to society when given an appropriate and supportive way to positively connect with their school and community.

I work with a wonderful staff of experienced and dedicated professionals, and a school district willing to provide exceptional support.

A typical day starts at a 6 a.m. morning briefing with detention staff. I then spend time responding to emails, organizing daily activities for the program, and greeting the arriving staff and students. Throughout the day I respond to youth who are disengaged from the classrooms, and problem solve with teachers and officers to find ways to return them to school. I visit with teachers, observe classes, and offer support where needed. If things are running smoothly, I can find time for data collection, budgeting, program design, and professional development, as well as district appraisal requirements.

What would you say has most surprised you about working in a secure facility? Continue reading

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.

Choice is Coming – But for Pre-K, It’s Already Here

Betsy DeVos is top-of-mind right now, particularly after her tense confirmation hearing on Tuesday night. Front and center in most of these conversations is DeVos’ strong support for school choice. What’s getting little attention, however, is what DeVos could accomplish on early childhood issues.3969866244_b02e13b9fb_o

We don’t know much about DeVos’ views on early education, but I’m personally hopeful that she takes a lesson from her home state: Michigan has a strong state-funded pre-k program that utilizes “diverse delivery.” “Diverse delivery” is another way of saying “school choice for early childhood.” In this system, parents of young children pick from a range of early childhood providers — including for-profit centers, churches, nonprofit community-based organizations, and school districts — based on whatever factors they deem most important. And in Michigan, unlike many other states, charter schools are included in the pre-k program. That model is something DeVos should bring to the national stage.

Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), is a good example of diverse delivery in action. Funding for the program goes to intermediate school districts (ISDs); ISDs then contract with a variety of providers, all of which must meet a state-determined standard of quality, to actually serve preschool children. GSRP is targeted to families that make less than 250% of the federal poverty level, so if children are eligible to participate, their parents can send them to any GSRP center that has space for them.

And research suggests that Michigan’s program is effective. A 2005 study of five states, including Michigan, showed that children who participated in state-funded preschool had better vocabulary, early math skills, and understanding of print concepts than children who did not attend. GSRP is also growing. Between 2013 and 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder upped the investment in GSRP by $130 million. The program currently serves 32 percent of four-year-olds in the state, more than 35 other states.

And many of those children are served in charter school pre-k programs. Michigan is one of the more hospitable states for charter schools to serve preschoolers. In fact, Michigan has 76 charter schools that serve preschoolers, which is the fourth highest in the country behind California, Florida, and Texas.

This type of charter school/pre-k synergy is rare even though most states already have pre-k systems that incorporate a range of public providers. Diverse delivery may be old news in the early childhood world, but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to certain providers — specifically charter schools. States that have offered pre-k choice for decades struggle with how to best incorporate charter schools as an early childhood option for parents.

Even so, early childhood is already more supportive of choice in ways that are controversial in K-12 — as evidenced by Tuesday’s hearing . In a column for U.S. News earlier this month, Andy Rotherham astutely noted that with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the country’s education agenda, “More choice is coming to education — it’s a question of when and how rather than if.” DeVos should take a cue from Michigan and start by expanding choice in early childhood.

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.

Charter Board Members Shape DC’s Charter Sector in Countless Small Ways

In a new report “Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” my co-author Allison Crean Davis and I provide a wealth of new information on charter boards in Washington, DC. But there’s one simple fact that merits further consideration: 62 different boards oversee the schools that enroll nearly half of the city’s children. Individually, each charter board makes consequential decisions for their school. But collectively, their decisions shape how the whole sector evolves.

School-level governance means charter boards can act quickly, approve the roll out (or roll back) of programs in response to feedback, and even address individual student or parent concerns. Decisions at this scale can be faster, more responsive, and less bureaucratic than those at the district or state level. In short, it is far easier to change the course of a speedboat than the Queen Mary (or the Titanic, depending on your optimism regarding district reform efforts).

Depending on a school’s particular challenges, one charter board may spend a great deal of time and energy debating whether and how to increase the salaries of their teachers. Another may focus on student recruitment and retention. A third may spend most of its time searching for their next school leader. The open responses to our survey showed board members wrestling with each of these issues and many more. In these myriad discussions and decisions, small organizations are responding and adapting to changing needs, problems, new information, and opportunities.

We note in our report a number of data points that suggest boards of low-quality charter schools are changing their practices. As we might expect, the boards of the highest-quality schools are most likely to evaluate their school leaders, they meet most often, and they have the most accurate knowledge of their school’s student population. However, the board practices of low-quality schools fall between those of high- and middling-quality schools rather than below them.

These data points present the possibility that board members of low-quality schools are responding to their own sense of urgency to improve school quality and/or pressure from the DC Public Charter School Board. (More research, especially analyzing board practices and school quality over time, would shed valuable light here.)

School-level governance means that the potential impact of a charter board’s actions are correspondingly smaller than the potential impact of an urban district’s comprehensive reform plan. However, school-level governance also enables each charter school to adapt more quickly, in a thousand small ways. Meanwhile, the education policy community watches to see whether these adaptations collectively fulfill the promise of a continuously improving charter sector. I’m optimistic.

You can read the full report here.