Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

School Reform – First Do No Harm

Cheryl S. Williams's picture

A new report, Democratic School Turnarounds: Pursuing Equity and Learning from Evidence, suggests that government agencies and policy-makers, including the U.S. Department of Education, should rely more on research to guide their efforts in school reform and turnaround strategies.  The report, authored by Tina Trujillo at the University of California, Berkeley and Michelle Renee of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, and produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, asserts that research shows that the top-down, punitive reform efforts that are currently in vogue are ineffective and cause more harm than good in turning around troubled schools.

While the current administration’s efforts to improve troubled schools are well-meaning, the reform strategies mandated destabilize schools and exacerbate the problems troubled schools already exhibit of high staff turnover and frequent change in leadership.  The administration’s efforts to turn around 5,000 of the nation’s lowest performing schools through creation of the federal School Improvement Grant program (SIG) channeled increased federal dollars into states and struggling schools under the condition that a narrow choice of strategies be implemented:  turnaround, transformation, restart or closure.  The report explains that the four SIG approaches are largely grounded in the firing and replacement of school staff – a process also known as churn.  Research has shown that these change strategies do not work and actually recreate the conditions that cause school failure.

Because these schools are among the hardest to staff in our nation, the federally mandated approaches have an inherent logistical challenge—finding the better-qualified personnel to refill vacant slots in turnaround schools.  As the authors point out, when a school is in crisis, it is damaging to remove the people who are committed to helping children learn.  The report also asserts that the current approaches to school turnaround are almost always ineffective, weakening school systems, causing staff upheaval, crushing morale and leaving the schools with poor student performance.

What is missing from the federal turnaround directives is community engagement, which many experts consider critical for turnaround to succeed.  The report’s authors further assert that it is extremely important to engage those most impacted by turnaround—families, community members and teachers in targeted schools because these groups are the biggest assets in improving education.  Recent research links community organizing with more effective teacher recruitment and retention, improved curricula, increased equity in school funding systems and higher student achievement.

Finally, the report states first among its recommendations that increases be made in federal and state spending on public education because real change requires real investment.  When communities of educators, parents, community and business leaders collaborate toward a common goal and have the resources necessary to support real change, public schooling and the community at large are improved.  This report documents the research that supports this approach along with a companion brief that takes the report’s recommendations and offers legislative language that would translate the recommendations into law.  Both the policy brief and the legislative brief can be found on the NECP website at http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/democratic-school-turnarounds

Since all of us who care about public education want our best efforts on improvement and “reform” to be based on evidence of success, this report offers an important guidepost for our collective efforts going forward in building a world class public school system that serves all our students and communities.

Image by Aran Ho Yeow Yong; vector by Mozillaman (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons