...Where Angels Fear to Tread
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.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- National PTA President Otha Thornton on the Common Core
- 2013 School Counselor of the Year Mindy Willard on the state of her profession
- Supervisor of Administration John Swang on saving money in energy costs
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
Inspiring Students to Do Their Best
At Fox C-6 School District in Missouri, an emphasis on a character initiative is helping students thrive. District performance outranks the state in math and ELA in grades 3 through 8, and graduation rates are over 90 percent. Learn more...
- AACTE's Ed Prep Matters
- ISTE Connects
- PTA's One Voice
- PDK Blog
- The EDifier
- School Board News Today
- Legal Clips
- Learning Forward’s PD Watch
- NAESP's Principals' Office
- NASSP's Principal's Policy Blog
- The Principal Difference
- ASCA Scene
- Always Something
- NSPRA: Social School Public Relations
- Transforming Learning
- AASA's The Leading Edge
- AASA Connects (formerly AASA's School Street)
- NEA Today
- Lily's Blackboard
What Else We're Reading
- DQC's The Flashlight
- Center for Teaching Quality
- The Answer Sheet
- Politics K-12
- U.S. Department of Education Blog
- John Wilson Unleashed
- The Core Knowledge Blog
- This Week in Education
- Inside School Research
- Teacher Leadership Today
- On the Shoulders of Giants
- Teacher in a Strange Land
- Teach Moore
- The Tempered Radical
- The Educated Reporter
- Taking Note
- Character Education Partnership Blog
- Why I Teach