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Getting it Right

Jess Tonn

I spent my commute home last night reading “Getting it Right,” Ed Trust’s report on federal accountability policy. Not my usual subway reading material, but important for anyone who’s monitoring the next wave of ESEA/NCLB/insert-new-acronym-here or is concerned about the boring-ization of the traditional school day.

There’s a lot to digest in the report, but their recommendations for how districts should treat principals who are charged with turning around low-performing schools caught my eye. For starters, they recommend hiring principals who have a “track record of raising student achievement in Title I schools” (a bit of a no-brainer), and then giving those principals “significant autonomy over the school’s budget, staff assignments, scheduling, and instructional programs” (emphasis added by yours truly).

Right on, Ed Trust. This kind of principal autonomy is key to changing the factory-model style of education that we see in so many of our schools. How can we expect principals to break out of the confines of the 6-hour-day or the four walls of the traditional classroom if we don’t give them the freedom to do so?

We see a fair amount of principal autonomy—and resulting innovation—in our ELT schools in New York City. Given the structure of our school district, our principals are fortunate to have a certain level of freedom over scheduling, as reported by GothamSchools this week:

“The system’s decentralization means that city schools have a high degree of individual decision-making power over how to divide time and whether or not to add more, either by bringing after-school programming to the school via independent community organizations or getting creative with teachers’ schedules.”

For example, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Sean Davenport, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, for our last annual report. He said:

“We’re not a test prep school. That’s why I love expanded learning time. You can do things in expanded learning time that you wouldn’t find in the daytime because you’re just too traditional in the day at times. ...The expanded learning time program has done a lot to help us meet certain goals that other schools may have a hard time reaching, that don’t have a program like this.”

But back to the subject of accountability…What does the data say about Thurgood Marshall? Sure, they may be meeting their own goals, but are the school’s test scores actually improving?

You betcha. Compared with the average gains among NYC schools, Thurgood Marshall demonstrated substantially greater gains from last year in the percentage of students proficient in math and English.

At Thurgood Marshall, the principal has the freedom to do what he thinks is best for his school (which, in this case, means adding more time to the school day), the kids are getting the extra academics and extracurriculars that have been shown to make a difference for their long-term success, AND the school’s test scores have gone up? Sure sounds like they’re getting it right to me.

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