Liposuction approach to school reform


In readying to head out  for time off, I asked Kilian Betlach to share his thoughts about the transformation his  school is about to undergo.  Betlach is the assistant principal of Elmhurst Community Prep, a small middle school in the Oakland Unified School District. Previously he taught seventh grade in east San Jose, experiences that were chronicled at “Teaching in the 408″—twice named one of the best education blogs by the Washington Post.

By Kilian Betlach
Guest Columnist

Last March, the California Department of Education released a list of “persistently low-performing schools” that would be part of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) process. Our school was on it.

In the weeks and months that followed, as every day became increasingly dominated by our place on the list, our school community went through the Kübler-Ross grief cycle:

Shock: Are you kidding? Elmhurst Community Prep has posted a net gain of 39 API points in three years, and stands 120 points higher than the last year of the since-reconstituted Elmhurst Middle School. This is persistently low-achieving?

Denial: No way this is right. Get our picture of the front page of the paper.

Anger: This is what we do now? Not teaching and learning, but reading about federal grant processes? This is what’s best for kids?

Bargaining: We’re clearly caught in an algorithmic error. Tweak the algorithm and focus on some schools that more desperately need aggressive intervention.

Depression: Turns out the Department of Education welcomes algorithm changes the way Arizona welcomes immigrants.

Testing: Okay. We’re here. We have four options. We’re not closing (#1), and we’re not reconstituting again (#2). Are we going charter (#3) or doing this transformation thing (#4)?

Acceptance: As professional educators we feel the riptide urgency to close the achievement gap. We recognize that we have to get better. Our staff and our community believe the transformation option is a way to do this. Let’s roll some sleeves and get to work.

Roll up our sleeves we did. It hasn’t been an easy road, but we came out of this with a strong finish to the 2009-2010 school year, and a compelling plan to raise the quality of education we provide.

I came out it with the belief that the SIG process—and all similar initiatives—represent an insufficient, low-leverage path toward improving our schools. I do not believe that reform-by-grant-application is capable of bringing about the dramatic change our kids deserve.

Reform-by-grant-application asks small numbers of schools to make small changes over a short period of time, supported by temporary funding. Even if presented in a manner that does not discredit past improvement or spread disharmony and discord, such initiatives lack essential staying power and capacity building. Yes, we may have funding to extend the school day for the length of the grant, but then what? Yes, we may have funding for additional specialists to work with our kids, but how will we pay them after the grant expires?

The reform-by-grant ideology sees a school system in need of tweaks and temporary fixes — change, not reform. It’s the ideology of liposuction, not diet and exercise.

This is problematic, not because Elmhurst Community Prep and schools like us won’t benefit from increased funding. We may. The real problem lies in the stark reality that after all the grief and long hours of planning, after all the revisions and implementation meetings, the reform-by-grant-application approach may bring about better results in one or two of Oakland’s over 100 schools; it will have done nothing to reform the conditions that make improvement necessary in the first place.

Editor’s note: Oakland applied for $10 million SIG grants for Elmhurst and two other schools in the district, but the state Department of Education has recommended no money for the schools.  Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified, also denied any money, have protested loudly. The State Board of Education took no action last week, and may yet find a way to give additional grants to some of these schools.


  1. Amen to this: “Reform-by-grant-application asks small numbers of schools to make small changes over a short period of time, supported by temporary funding.”

    Every child deserves an outstanding neighborhood public school. The RTTT reform agenda is about drama and lifeboats and anxiety, but it will do little to provide what we must.

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  2. If we use the money for specialists to work with teachers and improve on some things we’re doing in the classrooms, the knowledge won’t go away when the money does. We can apply those best practices we find in these schools to other schools throughout our districts, and that can benefit lots of kids.

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  3. Kilian Betlach hit the nail on the head: all these short-term “cures” are really just band-aids; they do little to nothing to treat, perhaps even cure, the school-based conditions that created the need for all these reforms. What to do: Follow a modified medical model: 1)assess what is educationally needed for each student; 2) prescribe treatment; 3) pay professionals what they are worth to implement. And size matters: smaller groups is the only way to meet individual needs. Expensive? Yes, but is it any more expensive than the grant money already spent reforming the reforms? It’s time to end the one-size-fits-all approach and at least get to the school-based causes; school-by-school; student-by-student.

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