Another Dirty Secret about Turnaround Schools (2)

The first dirty secret (posted on October 7, 2009) is: Turned around schools do not stay turned around. While such a disconnect between policy talk and the grubby realities of on-the-ground practice has existed for years the gap has grown even larger since the love affair between policy elites and the business community was made public in the Nation at Risk report (1983).

Even if I were to list dozens of failed business-driven attempt to rescue low-performing schools or even suggest that the recent economic meltdown revealed not financial Wizards of Oz but middle-aged white guys with scuffed brown shoes hiding behind a curtain, it would matter little. The prevailing ideas among educational policy elites are anchored deeply in a business model of market competition, choice, and entrepreneurial magic. Inside the Beltway, policy wonks and their cloistered audiences push business-inflected ideas with as much certainty about their rightness for schools as do dentists when they see a mouth filled with cavities.

One example of a policy analyst’s self-confidence on turnarounds (and disconnect from urban school realities) may suffice:

“We can triple (or possibly quadruple) the number of failing schools fixed within five years without getting any better at fixing failing schools. How? By shortening the time that passes before recognizing failure and retrying major change….

“We must:
* Commit to faster retry rates in failing school fix efforts, one or two years not five.
* Identify the “leading indicators” of success/failure that show up in years one and two of fix efforts.
* Adopt “spigot on” school-and-leader replacement supplies, since so many efforts will fail the first time.

“Here’s the power of faster retry rates: If a school district fixes 30% of its failed schools the first time out (a high rate by cross-sector standards), shortening the “identify failure and retry” rate from five to two years would nearly double the total percentage of schools fixed within five years from 30% to 58%. Shortening it to one year would drive the five year fix rate up to 83%. If the initial success rate is more dismal, say 10%, shortening the retry cycle from five years to one year quadruples the number of schools fixed within five years.”

From what galaxy did these folks arrive? (For a less ascerbic response to the entire proposal, see here). Have any of them ever spent more than a few hours in a “dropout factory?” I speak of those many schools where rapid turnover of principals, inexperienced teaching staff, lessons prepping students for state tests, school security, and huge distrust between youth and adults are routine. In these schools, the anti-academic torpor and school-hating climate, fractured occasionally by the gifted teacher who continues to put out 150 percent, is there for anyone to see who does more than a Washington politico’s “windshield” visit to Baghdad.

The fact of the matter—and here is the second dirty secret—is that the requisite expertise, resources, and commitment to handcraft a successful school out of a chronically failing one is, simply, in short supply. The minimum conditions for a successful turnaround are finding seriously tough-minded, caring, experienced teachers and savvy principals, providing a stable flow of money, recruiting parents willing to work closely with staff to tackle a basket-case school. Then, and here is the often forgotten kicker, staying engaged for at least five years to turn around a school and keep it turned around.

Since the 1970s, “combat” pay, performance-driven bonuses, appeals to idealism—none of these measures in urban districts have created cadres of highly-competent teachers and administrators eager for a crack at turning around failing schools in segregated, poor communities. Moreover, entrepreneurs who tout Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, and charter management companies as the reform-driven vanguard for turning around persistently failing schools avoid the practical demands of making the necessary long-term commitment to keep turned around schools healthy and successful. Yes, a few exceptions exist such as Harlem Children’s Zone and exceptional charter schools like Oakland’s American Indian Charter School but for the vast majority of low-performing schools, the cupboard is nearly empty of skilled teachers and unafraid administrators willing to join activist parents in taking the risky plunge in creating and sustaining first-rate schools.

And here is where the experience of that Army battalion stationed in Baghdad in 2007 that David Finkel described in The Good Soldiers can be compared to turnaround schools. Macro-policy talk and micro-practice are worlds apart. “Windshield tours” or school visits of a few hours won’t close the gap between policy action and on-the-ground realities. Nor will wonkish calculations about trying harder and running faster alter the fact that the necessary expertise and capabilities to turnaround schools and sustain important gains are still missing-in-action in The Race to the Top to save 5,000 failing schools.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Another Dirty Secret about Turnaround Schools (2)

  1. J

    I’m a teacher. While I’ve never taught in a “dropout factory”, as a relatively young teacher – like many other relatively young teachers – I have been saddled with “dropout course of study” classes despite limited preparation (“Here, read this book.”) for coping with the multitude of issues a classroom full of at risk students can provide. (How about senior-level department members? They teach all AP and honors level classes so haven’t dealt with the type of issues since their tenure year, which many times was over 20 years ago.) I can tell you that no one works harder to educate themselves to turn these kiddos around and keep them in school than their teachers.

    Here is how I see it breaking down:

    (1) Culture has to step up and change. These kids are listening to music and watching television that repeatedly reinforces the idea that education is not important for financial success. And after all, high schoolers listen more to peers and media than to any adults in their lives. Case in point, there was a rap song from about four years ago that included the line, “Throw some D’s on [my report card].”

    (2) Parents need to know that it is okay to ask for help when they get preteens and teenagers. I’ve noticed that the most caring and concerned parents act as if THEY’ve done something wrong (no, they haven’t) when they have trouble parenting the over-hormonal tweens and teens. We teachers can provide academic strategies to help you out, for sure. And gladly. There are other members of society who can help you with behavior issues. Especially the all-too-dreaded “slow build” of behavior in the home. Most of the crying (out of unwarranted shame and warranted frustration) parents I’ve ever had to deal with have been because their child has slowly built up to the wild running hooligan they are today. Being mean and strict is an overreaction to each step of the slow build, but by the time it is hooliganism, the child has learned to ignore parental authority. Most parents (especially if this is their first “slow build”ing teen) don’t have a toolkit of strategies to pull out when they need to. Why not borrow someone else’s?

    (3) Educational Reformers need to stop thinking that public HIGH SCHOOLs are going to solve all of America’s societal ills. Why do you assume that this is the right institution for the job? Is it because it is the first government institution a child usually experiences? We cannot even afford unlimited xerox copies at most high schools, (Yay copy limits!) so how do you propose we pay for the full psychological and social work staff that we need. And where shall we put them? My classroom (desks bolted to the floor) holds 24 students but my class sizes are more like 30 students. And why HIGH SCHOOLs? Usually by this point it is too late. I see students who, to borrow a horse metaphor, have the bit between their own teeth in high school and so are driving their own lives. They drop out, get involved in the criminal element, spend some time in jail, mature, reform, get a GED, and go on to lead a moderately successful adult life. Sure, we see this as a crisis that can be averted, but once those students have that bit between their teeth, pulling on the reins won’t do anything to avert their course. HOWEVER, at a YOUNGER AGE (Middle School? Elementary School?) they can be reined in. And even more, it is the at risk middle school students who are most able to have a serious, mature conversation about the messages that the modern media are sending them. At risk middle schoolers really respond to adults empowering them by telling them that they have the “Power to Ignore”. I have had this conversation with many 8th graders who blossom when told they have power. These students, especially, feel powerless in their daily lives. No one has told them that they can choose to ignore bad messages. No one has pointed out the subliminal messages all around us. But once they see it they feel empowered and grown up and it really makes a difference.

    Turn around efforts?
    That’s nothing more than drill-and-kill. Sometimes sugar coated. But always underlyingly punative.

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