Interview with Keith Sanders, Chief of the Delaware School Turnaround Unit (STU)
This month, Alexandra Usher, an MPP candidate at University of Chicago, will discuss examples pertaining to an upcoming Mass Insight publication, The Top Ten SEA Power Levers for School Turnaround. Keep an eye on this space for more information coming soon! This is the fourth and final post of her series.
A new leader
Keith Sanders became Chief of the Delaware Department of Education’s (DDOE) School Turnaround Unit (STU) in October 2012. After a year of school-level observation, he sensed the DDOE needed to shift its concentration to sustainability of turnaround practices so that programs aren’t lost as the grants wind down. His goal became to increase districts’ capacity around improving their lowest-performing schools, while making sure they have the resources necessary to sustain those improvements.
The current model
The STU’s theory of action is “to work with external partners around engaging schools and school leaders.” A lean staff of three SEA employees supports 23 schools; 10 are designated (under RTT) as Priority and 13 as Focus schools. A team of representatives from the DDOE, the University of Delaware school leadership support program, and district representatives conducts two-day comprehensive school reviews, using a rubric designed to align with the STU’s six tenets of school effectiveness. The results are used to target support.
Focus schools target interventions to the subgroup of students whose achievement led to the Focus designation. Priority schools are placed into the state’s Partnership Zone (PZ), which are also Delaware’s SIG schools. PZ schools are not run by the SEA, but undergo intensive planning and monitoring overseen by the STU. Each district strategizes about how to best intervene in its PZ schools, then submits an MOU to the SEA outlining strategies to address areas like instruction, staff development, and oversight.
To determine if PZ schools are improving, the STU runs their performance data against every benchmark in the six-tenet framework. Rather than looking for huge improvements on each tenet, Sanders looks for evidence the school is on an upward trajectory. He says, “For me it’s really about sustainability, and is the school poised to sustain this over time?” The six-tenet framework also helps differentiate what kind of intervention each schools needs; Sanders notes that monitoring progress can’t be a “one size fits all” approach, even when schools operate under the same designation and intervention model.
A shift in focus
To exit the PZ, schools must hit a series of achievement targets tied to the six-tenet framework, which usually takes about two years. But Sanders notes that this doesn’t indicate whether a school is on an upward trajectory or will be able to sustain its improvement. The STU team is now thinking about what “turnaround 2.0” could look like, and agree that current exit criteria don’t actually indicate whether the school is successfully turned around or not.
Sanders hopes to re-work and strengthen the improvement assessment framework by aligning it with the SMARTER Balance Consortium expectations and including measures like changes to instructional scale scores between the fall and spring and comparisons against schools with similar populations. This would create a more rigorous exit criteria, but Sanders feels that it would be, “more fair, because we look at a broader picture and we give schools credit for what they have done in one year”.
The second time around, Sanders says, it will be evident that the SEA has learned that, “we can and probably should take a more active role from the state level.” While the current model gives school and districts more leeway with implementation and budget, not all results are satisfactory. The state has many levers it can use to spur schools, Sanders notes, including the authority to take over closed schools and the ability to withhold funding based on performance and implementation. Those levers, used effectively, can ensure that turnaround is supported to be successful.
Based on information gathered from the New York State School Turnaround Office’s case study Delaware’s Partnership Zone School Turnaround Governance Highlights, available online at http://www.p12.nysed.gov/turnaround/documents/Delaware.pdf, and from an interview with Keith Sanders conducted by phone on August 30, 2013.
 The STU’s framework for school improvement is based on six tenets of school effectiveness: common core alignment and making sure the school is on pace to implement the Common Core State Standards; teacher effectiveness and decision-making in a data-driven culture; principal development and supporting key leaders; students’ personal and social development and provision of wraparound services to ensure that a healthy culture and climate are in place; parent engagement (Sanders notes that it’s rare to see an SEA get involved in this area, but they believe that in this climate parents should be aware and informed), and district capacity.