Learning First Alliance

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...Where Angels Fear to Tread

vonzastrowc's picture

Dubious school turnaround outfits are rushing in where some more experienced groups fear to tread, The New York Times reports. Of course, we can expect this sort of thing to happen whenever speculators and pitchmen smell billions of federal dollars. But the hype that attends much of the talk about school reform can make matters worse.

The uncomfortable truth is that no single turnaround strategy is a sure bet. A recent review  (PDF) of major turnaround models found that none rested on strong evidence. The research base remains thin.

That has not stopped quite a few people from insisting that, to save a struggling school, you have to start from scratch. You have to give the staff its walking papers if you want to see big changes, the theory goes. Powerful people often invoke the Harvard School of Excellence in Chicago as proof of this strategy. After the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) cleaned house at this elementary school, test scores soared.

Few have paid much attention to the Chicago public schools whose gains have equaled or surpassed Harvard's. Cardenas and Cather elementary schools were among the most improved schools in the city, and neither school fired staff to jump start its reform efforts.

Cardenas and Cather are among eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI). Those schools have made big strides since 2007 without replacing staff. And their turnaround efforts have cost a fraction of what the restart model costs. None of the SLI schools has enjoyed the kind of praise heaped on Harvard. (For more information on SLI's work, see our interview with SLI president John Simmons).

Harvard has earned the praise, but the uneven media coverage of school reform efforts offers a very skewed vision of our turnaround options. Indeed, the New York Times piece on turnarounds implicitly endorses the restart model. It quotes someone from AUSL who calls for an "'extreme reset....' Usually that means installing a new principal and a newly committed teaching staff."

I can understand where he's coming from. Far too many school turnaround efforts have featured more window-dressing than substance. If you start from scratch, you make a break from the past. But it's misleading to suggest that most restarts work, or that mass firings are the only way to improve matters.

Perhaps the best lessons to draw from the Times article involve rigor and reach. Turnaround efforts have to be rigorous. They have to ground themselves in the best evidence and remain faithful to that evidence. They have to be consistent and sustained.

Turnaround efforts should also maintain a broad reach. They have to address a school's climate, curriculum, culture and community, among other areas. Both AUSL and SLI have learned these lessons.

Rigor and reach will distinguish the experts from the charlatans. It won't do to hype one method over another unless we learn to draw that distinction.

That gets back to the civil

That gets back to the civil right's Framework saying that poor kids aren't lab rats for experimentation. Would you gamble in a system where one child attends a legitimate turnaourd while your other child goes to a school with a bogus turnaround?

And the pace of all this makes no sense. In our local paper today the story is about superintendents who are about to get their turnaround and transportation plans nailed down, a month after teachers were forced to return to work, and they've done their cutbacks. But now they get to hire back teachers? Its a good bet that most of the top talent that was fired last spring is no longer available for this year.

There are teachers who were dismissed from their turnaround schools who are still being forced to report for duty at those schools because new jobs haven't been found, and now the adminstration has to find a rational way to rehire teachers after school has started? Which means schedules have to be redone.

How would even the best turnaround specialists handle that? Its a shame because I think the whole turnaround brand will be following NCLB into being discredited.

Turnarounds are the right

Turnarounds are the right idea, but I think we're rolling them out before we have any real experienced shops who can bring any of that work to scale.

While I am anxious to learn more about SLI, there is very, very thin evidence on using ANY method to see vast improvement in persistently failing schools. If we knew how to do that, we wouldn't a) Have them b)Have to talk about turnarounds.

I don't know if these are the right models, but what they really amount to is, "You've had your time to work your way, now time is up. This has reached unacceptable." There's no reason to suggest these schools are going to magically do it on their own, so even if 30% of them improve by this method and the other 70% stink, that's 30% more schools than we'd expect to be doing well.

It all comes down to your philosophy of managing groups of schools. Turnarounds take almost a site-based management approach except that it puts in the high stakes accountability before providing additional flexibility in return rather than vice versa.

John--Your points about the

John--Your points about the haste of the current turnaround efforts are well taken. Like you, I worry that the very idea will be discredited if we rush things. The problem is indeed urgent, but a timetable that scuttles thoughtful planning can do as much harm as good in the end.

Jason--I agree with you that the evidence base is thin. That's why I'm skeptical of the hype that can surround any particular turnaround strategy. At this point, the hype is pretty slanted towards the reconstitution model, despite the lack of an evidence base. AUSL gets tons of attention--many wonks still seem to think it's the only successful model in Chicago--and SLI gets none. But both deserve credit, and the SLI model turned out to be much less expensive.

So many turnaround models aren't a sure bet because they often don't get well implemented. Mobile, AL reconstituted 5 elementary schools, but only one succeeded. I suspect the difference came down to the rigor of the model, the fidelity of implementation, and the reach of the effort. The Consortium for Chicago School research compared schools that substantially raised achievement with those that didn't and found that the successful schools did well in establishing "five essential supports: shared leadership, a focus on classroom instruction, professional development, parent engagement and the climate for learning.

Doesn't sound that dramatic. But I suspect that the best efforts get at these comprehensive points with real rigor. The worst go through the motions. That's probably the main distinction. So, yeah, some prescription may be too easy.

But it's too easy to prescribe the restart model and wait for the miracle....