Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

...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.