Two Dirty Secrets of Turnaround Schools (1)

In “The Good Soldiers,” a book about an Army battalion stationed on the outskirts of Baghdad during the surge in 2007, David Finkel writes about the disconnect between Washington policy elite talk being “more strategic, more political, more policy-driven”–and soldiers’ actual on-the-ground daily acts of “bravery and tragedy.” The gap between macro-policy and micro-reality, Finkel writes, could not be closed with “windshield tours” by Washington politicos who rush in “hear a general or two, get into a Humvee, see a market surrounded by new blast walls, get a commemorative coin,” and fly out.

The policy/practice disconnect occurs not only between politicos and the battlefield soldiers. There is also a profound gap between current federal and state policymakers’ talk of turning around 5,000 failing schools across the country and actual on-the-ground school experiences of students, principals, and teachers. Macro-talk by inside-the-Beltway bloggers and policymakers make turning around “dropout factory schools” akin to turning around bankrupt businesses. It ain’t so.

St. Louis school district policy makers, for example, hired a successful New York City bankruptcy firm for $ five million in 2003 to lift dismal test scores, increase pitifully low graduation rates, and get the district out of debt. The firm appointed as superintendent a former CEO from Brooks Brothers. He closed over 20 schools, cut nearly $80 million from the budget, out-sourced food, transportation, and other services, and dropped over 1,000 employees–all in 13 months.Then the hot-shot CEO and company left town. Since then a turnstile superintendency and state takeover have not altered the fact that St. Louis remains a basket case of a school district with dropout factories intact.

Maybe St. Louis is too extreme of an example of chasing the corporate model of success. Perhaps a glimpse of the private sector record in turning around bankrupt companies might incite more confidence. Researchers found that corporate experts who took “an ax and a machine gun to your existing organization” (or, as academics would say in less vivid language, making fundamental changes) would still fail to turnaround 7 of 10 firms. So St. Louis’s experience is hardly an outlier.

Keep in mind, however, that those researchers estimate 3 out of 10 businesses do turn around. Assume that this percentage, either higher or lower, would apply to schools as well. Surely, Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, and charter school stars have created successful schools and made policy wonks beam with pride. But the experts and policymakers’ high failure rate of 7o percent in turning around chronically low-performing schools and businesses should give even the most ardent champion sufficient pause. Perhaps that lethal failure rate is due to the lack of know-how.

Presently, no researcher, no expert, not even the President of the United States can say with any confidence how to turn around a failing school. Researchers are clear about that. Then again, few decision-makers ever waited for research evidence to decide on a policy. The lack of solid evidence, however, is not one of the dirty secrets that I mention in the title since it is common for educational decision-makers to mandate policies that have little research evidence.

The first dirty secret is that even in those few schools that end up as success stories: Turned around schools often do not stay turned around. There are, indeed, magical moments when people, resources, outside expertise, and community coalesce neatly to handcraft a successful school; yet these schools, be they charters or neighborhood schools, seldom stay together for more than a few years and, either slowly or swiftly, disintegrate and resume their prior dismal state. Stability in academic performance–five or more years–in schools defined as “effective,” “successful,” or whatever label is attached to them are simply hard to sustain. Successful schools, however defined, are fragile inventions that easily fall apart when school leaders transfer, key teachers depart or no longer collaborate, community activists lose interest or a dozen other changes occur including shifting the measures of achievement. The disconnect between macro-policy and micro-practice is anchored in this lack of know-how and a lackluster commitment to stay the course in sustaining success. The next post will take up the second dirty secret of turnaround schools.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Two Dirty Secrets of Turnaround Schools (1)

  1. This dirty little secret #1 puts a big dent in the most recent turnaround theory. The Hassels’ claim that we can “fix” far many more schools far more quickly by giving turnaround leaders no more than 1-2 years to turn things around. They write (breathlessly) that this strategy could “fix” as many as 84% of schools over five years.

    The reality that schools backslide appears nowhere in their giddy calculations. (I offer some more thoughts about their theory here: http://www.publicschoolinsights.org/turnaround-hassels).

    Still, this dirty little secret can be rather depressing. What’s to be done if even the success stories slide back into their former state over the course of a few years? We’ve been following the progress of a number turnaround schools for some years now, and most have been holding steady. They certainly do need a lot of ongoing care and feeding….

  2. larrycuban

    Claus,
    The next post will comment on the goofy notion (and math) of “fixing” four out of five failed schools in a few years. But your point about pessimism is well taken. I do not see, however, the “dirty secret” as tilting toward pessimism but being realistic about what exists daily in those low-income schools that have been turned around. As you say they “certainly need a lot of ongoing care”–academics call it “continuous improvement”–and that is what sustaining turnarounds takes as changes in the school pile up over time. The absence of “ongoing care” is precisely why so many turnarounds regress. If only those who make the decisions could see it as a long haul rather than a short trip.

  3. Thank you for this sensible look at what has for the most part been a catchy, gimmicky approach to a truly complex problem. “Turning around” a school cannot be done by formula or higher gunslingers. A good analogy might be to think of what it takes to turn around a huge ship; it doesn’t turn on a dime, and it’s a small, consistently applied change (rudder) not a major upheaval that accomplishes the turn.

  4. the real dirty secret is that most turn around schools get rid of their high-needs students first — before even trying to improve learning conditions at the school. This is what has happened in Chicago and NYC — and indeed, most of the places where this strategy has been touted as successful.

    • larrycuban

      You are correct, Leonie, that district officials getting rid of their “high-need students first” would be the dirtiest of secrets. Do you have any direct evidence of that occurring in Chicago and New York?

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