The U.S. Secretary of Education’s call to turn around 5,000 failing schools is inspiring but still hype. Why? No one knows how to turn around schools mired for years in the bottom tier of performance.
Just like the few low performing hospitals, businesses, and government agencies that have been turned around, such resuscitated schools are rare. What is clear, however, is that while state and federally-driven test-based accountability seem to prod schools in the middle range to avoid the stigma of failure, fear and shame have had less success in reviving failing schools.
In Austin (TX), for example, with 104 schools, that bottom tier contains two kinds of schools: those that are “Academically Unacceptable” in consecutive years and close to being shut down (the Texas Education Agency rates the state schools as “Exemplary,” “Recognized,” “Academically Acceptable,” and “Academically Unacceptable”) and those schools that slip in and out of consecutive “Unacceptables.” At least 3-4 high schools, 2-4 middle schools, and 4-6 elementary schools are in those categories, in other words, 8-12 percent of Austin schools.
Those schools that slip in and out of the bottom tier because handfuls of students in certain sub-groups (e.g., Hispanic, special education) trip the wire on the annual state test need undramatic responses. Insuring that stable principal and teacher leadership continue at these schools—increased turnover in principals and staff for more than two years is the clearest indicator of impending academic trouble—plus wise application of financial incentives for staff and additional support for students who need extra help should keep this small number of schools in the “Academically Acceptable” and even bump a few up to a rating of Recognized.
But for those Austin schools in danger of being shut down in a year or two if students’ scores do not meet state standards such as Pearce Middle School and Reagan High School, turnarounds seldom occur. Yes, shame and fear can prod staffs to work harder and draw in neighborhood activists and parents to help. In 2007, the Superintendent threatened to close largely minority and poor Webb Middle School. In the following year, Webb teachers, administrators, and parents turned disgrace into anger and concrete actions sufficiently to be rated “Acceptable” two years in a row. Whether the improvement stemmed from community activists joining with Webb staff to monitor low-performing students or any number of other actions, no Austin official can say for sure. Yet state threats about taking over schools, reconstituting schools, or contracting out to companies have failed to resurrect other Austin schools into high fliers. Johnston High School was closed in 2008 and reopened with a new principal, many new teachers, and new academies as East Side Memorial High School. This year it was rated “Academically Unacceptable.”
When turnarounds do occur, more often than not, a principal and staff figure out, with district office support, what model, what program, what people best fit a school’s history and neighborhood. Then they work with parents day in and day out to tailor the different components to fit the school, adapting their approach every time a pothole in the road appears. This happens one school at a time. Success spreads when district officials make it possible for turnaround teachers and administrators to share their wisdom with parents and those staff members who are ready and willing to improve.
Such a slow, labor-intensive process runs counter to what many state, federal policymakers and foundation officers champion: They scorn individual schools turned around here and there; they want a dozen or a score of schools “going to scale” with a sure-fire model in place not in five years, not in a decade, but in the next couple years. Yet as Charles Payne observed, expanding one or two apparently successful schools across a district is like saying: “Let’s pretend to do on a grand scale what we have no idea how to do on a small scale (p. 69).”
Some districts, for example, have established “turnaround zones” where clusters of low-performing schools are placed and prescribed strategies that change traditional operating conditions are required. In such zones, school leaders have more authority over their budgets and hiring personnel. They can change the daily schedule, extend the school day, use their resources to hire additional staff and place them in non-traditional posts. Chicago, Miami-Dade, New York City, Philadelphia have created such semi-autonomous sub-systems within the district.
Such “turnaround zones” might work well in particular districts even though the initiatives in these cities remain experimental. Reforming one school at a time by ensuring that seasoned principals, teachers, and parents help one another is to the policymakers and donors who tout “turnaround zones” like reviving Mom and Pop groceries stores in an age of fast- and full-serve supermarkets. Both tactics, however, are worthy to pursue when no expert or the U.S. Secretary of Education can certify which tactic works best.