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Unraveling three and a half months of "turnaround" twists: Part II

Immediately after Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to “turn around” dozens of struggling schools, Department of Education officials began laying the groundwork to implement the complex and politically charged process.

Planning is well underway, and it is likely to ratchet up after Thursday night, when the Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the proposals to close and reopen the schools with new names and new teachers. Approval is virtually assured, because the panel — whose majority consists of mayoral appointees — has never rejected a city proposal.

Yesterday, in a first post about turnaround’s past, present, and future, we looked at how the process landed on the panel’s agenda. Today, we are summarizing what we know – and what we don’t — about what is likely to come next.

What will happen to the teachers at the schools?

All teachers will have to reapply for their jobs. Under the 18-D process outlined in the city’s contract with the union, each principal and a team of teachers chosen by the principal and the union will set hiring guidelines and hire back at least 50 percent of the teachers from the old school who apply and are qualified to work in the new one. Federal turnaround requirements call for the schools to replace at least half of teachers who have been on staff for more than two years, suggesting that the rehiring might have to achieve exactly a 50 percent replacement rate. But city officials have said they are not setting a rehiring quota for turnaround principals.

Teachers who aren’t selected in the rehiring process or who choose not to apply will enter the Absent Teacher Reserve, the city’s pool of teachers who lack permanent positions. That pool has shrunk since September to its smallest size in years, so the city could accommodate an influx of new ATRs without spending more than it did on the pool in the past.

Early estimates of the number of teachers who could lose their positions landed on 1,700 — representing half of the teachers at the 33 schools originally on the turnaround list — but that number is likely to be substantially smaller. A report by the Coalition for Educational Justice, which opposes turnaround, pegged the number of teachers who would have to be replaced at the 26 schools currently facing turnaround at 849. Even if every single one of those teachers entered the ATR pool, the pool would not exceed its largest-ever size.

But it’s unlikely that all teachers who are sent to the ATR pool would stay there. Whenever large numbers of teachers have entered the ATR pool in June, a large portion have exited by the end of the summer after finding jobs at other schools. Teachers cut loose from turnaround schools would be free to seek positions elsewhere, and it’s likely that at least some will wind up teaching in other turnaround schools, which will have large numbers of vacancies.

This shift has come to be known among proponents of aggressive school reform as the “dance of the lemons” (based on an assumption that many teachers in low-performing schools are themselves low-performing).

But Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teaching Quality, which has advocated for turnaround in the past, told GothamSchools in January that the “dance” might not always be a terrible thing.

“There’s definitely something to be said for the fact that some teachers who are not successful in a certain context or environment would be successful in others,” Jacobs said. She added, “But there’s also a lot to be said for the dance of the lemons.”

Who will teach in the schools instead?

The entire turnaround plan is predicated on the idea that the schools can replace teachers who are not hired back with others of stronger quality. Exactly whether or how this would happen is not at all clear.

First, the the very reason that the city turned to turnaround — to avoid implementing new teacher evaluations — means that the city does not have a sophisticated tool for distinguishing teachers’ effectiveness. Virtually all of the teachers in turnaround schools received satisfactory ratings last year, along with 97 percent of teachers citywide. Second, the 18-D process requires that teachers who are qualified be hired back in order of seniority, meaning that turnaround principals might not have as much discretion as Bloomberg suggested when he announced the plan.

Principals will have more latitude when filling the spots that are left empty after rehiring is complete. Because the schools will be new, they will be allowed to fill up to 40 percent of their positions with teachers who are new to New York City even though most schools and license areas have been subject to hiring restrictions since 2009. Some of the new hires could be experienced teachers who have been deemed effective in other districts, but the more likely candidates are brand-new teachers minted by education schools or alternative certification programs such as Teach for America and the city’s Teaching Fellows, which are both increasing enrollment this year.

The schools can also hire teachers from elsewhere in the city. But some teachers have argued that the year of uncertainty at the turnaround schools has not made them attractive places to work.

What will happen to the students?

According to the Department of Education, virtually nothing. Students who are enrolled in the schools that close at the end of this year will automatically be enrolled in the replacement schools under the department’s plans. They will notice some changes — most significantly in their school’s name, the teachers who work there, and some of the programs that are offered — but for the most part, showing up at their renamed school on the first day of classes in September won’t be a shock.

But until school opens next fall, it’s not going to be easy to figure out what has actually changed. Academic programs might have been altered, and some of the extracurricular activities the city has promised to maintain hinge on individual teachers who might not apply to keep their jobs or be hired back. At the very least, students are in for a long period of uncertainty. At Newtown High School, for example, a student said it’s rumored that English and math classes would occupy double periods in the fall — a conceivable solution to lagging math and English scores — and so students wouldn’t learn their course schedules until much later than usual.

Is it possible that all of this won’t actually happen?

In theory, yes, but Department of Education officials are busily training principals and executing some early planning, making aa wholesale abandonment of the turnaround plans less likely with every passing day. Still, nothing is official until the Panel for Educational Policy approves the plans, and the city has withdrawn proposals up to a day before panel votes in the past. Those changes have typically happened when elected officials have come to schools’ defense, as officials in Queens, where eight high schools would be affected, have done with particular verve. In Brooklyn, even department officials appear to be of two minds about closing Bushwick Community High School, a transfer high schools that accepts students who have failed or dropped out elsewhere. But politicians’ capital might have been exhausted when they successfully urged the city to pull high-scoring schools from the turnaround list.

The bigger question is whether State Education Commissioner John King will decide to give the SIG funds to the city based on the turnaround applications. Shortly after Bloomberg’s January speech, King called the proposals “approvable” but has been largely silent about them since.

Rejecting applications on the basis of the 50 percent rule would put King in a difficult position. He would have to deny funding to schools that serve some of the state’s most needy students even though the principals of those schools say they have devised aggressive changes that are best for the students. But at the same time, awarding funds to the city for applications that flout some rules could jeopardize funding for the other nine New York State districts that are eligible for SIG funding.

City officials have vowed to carry through with the 18-D process with or without federal funding, and not receiving it could ease some decisions — such as about how many teachers to replace or whether to remove certain principals. But rejection would leave the city on the hook for millions of dollars in reforms and, even more so, would be an embarrassment after several months in which state officials have appeared skeptical of the city’s school improvement efforts.

Even if state approval comes through, a legal challenge could put a quick stop to turnaround. The union has vowed to push back and has been successful when challenging the department’s closure efforts on procedural grounds in the past.

The timing is delicate. Even a temporary halt to the turnaround plans while a judge weighs the merits of a union case could be an insurmountable delay because the entire process is taking place so late in the year. Before now, the city has always proposed school closures in early December and gotten PEP approval by early February. Turnaround is happening later in the year — and requires substantially different logistical gymnastics than the phaseout process that is usually undertaken.

If the turnarounds are approved, what happens next?

A legal challenge by the union, probably. The city will have completed the procedural steps required by law for closure, so the union will have also completed tallying possible violations.

The department’s planning is well underway: It has already begun replacing principals at many of the proposed turnaround schools, something it could do with or without panel approval. And it (along with the principals and teachers, in some cases) has produced required “Education Impact Statements” that outline what the schools would look like next year.

But a tremendous amount of work remains to be done, not the least of which is the restaffing. Teachers at schools slated for turnaround have told GothamSchools that they have been told they would begin interviewing to retain their jobs as soon as the day after the PEP hearing.

After the restaffing is complete, the principals will have only a few months to establish their vision for the overhauled schools before the vision must become reality. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg told GothamSchools earlier this spring that he hoped turnaround principals would use their federal funding to bring their new staffs together over the summer. If the federal funding is not approved, it could be a challenge for the schools to afford overtime payments for a full complement of teachers, and schools might open with staffs that have not worked together before.

Why does this matter?

It’s true that only 33 schools — and now, just 26 — were affected by the turnaround plans. In a city with about 1,700 schools, that’s only a tiny fraction. But turnaround could carry implications for the system as a whole.

One takeaway could be that a much wider swath of schools is at risk of closure. When the city introduced the progress reports, it said that only schools with D’s, F’s, or three consecutive C’s would be eligible for closure. But in addition to the seven A- and B-scoring schools that were removed from the turnaround list, 13 schools had grades above C in at least one of the last three years, meaning that they did not meet those criteria. The city has also said that schools flagged by the state could also be closed, but it has not actually proposed closures for any schools that don’t meet the progress report criteria. When the city proposed to close or shrink 23 schools earlier this year, the turnaround schools were not on the list — even the ones that did meet the city’s closure criteria.

Turnaround is also significant because it represents a roadmap to school closure that has never been used before. If the process survives legal challenges, there’s no reason the city couldn’t use it in the future, instead of the phase-out and phase-in process that it has used to replace low-performing schools.

The city’s standard closure process has downsides. It can take up to three years, and students and teachers at phaseout schools have said that time can be demoralizing and stressful. It involves hiring additional principals for small schools at significant cost to the city. Plus, the department has been criticized for letting high-needs students become concentrated in some schools — including several of those facing turnaround — after others nearby are closed.

Turnaround eliminates those concerns. Each school will continue to have only one principal. The change will happen overnight. And the students will stay put under turnaround; their teachers are changed instead.

The contrast means that turnaround could provide facts to help answer the perpetual question of how to improve struggling schools, although getting consistent data could be a challenge, especially with the Bloomberg administration set to vacate the Department of Education in a year and a half. If the schools post stronger performance in the future, it will be because of staffing and organizational changes, not because they enroll students who are better prepared. That could create a space for the city, which has favored small schools, to preserve comprehensive high schools. But failure to improve would give credence to those who say the city’s new small schools have succeeded because of the students they enroll.

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