Turning Around Failing Schools

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.



Filed under Reforming schools

7 responses to “Turning Around Failing Schools

  1. GW Jr

    Attaway GW Sr!

  2. Heather Kirkpatrick

    Thanks for this Larry. I laughed out loud at Payne’s quote (though think there are many schools that do know what to do.) And the link to Jane’s article was timely. Thanks again.

  3. Bill Plitt

    As I read the second piece, my first thoughts were about the similarities in the practices and results between more poorer urban schools and those in more affluent ones, and the behavior in the current “town hall discussion” on the subject of health care.

    What is evident to me in both arenas- schools and in these forums- is the influence that race, class and wealth has on our understanding of the issues and our willingness to address them. It seems also that the wide divide still exists in these elements in our society, and particularly as it appears in our educational institutions, even after years of reform efforts. In our society in general, there is some evidence that the gaps in public education and in health care are increasing as resources disappear. What is missing for me is the concern for the greater good, that Obama talked about during his campaign days. Whether or not the Obama of the campaign, and now President Obama the administrator of government can help create this focus is still up for review after only six months. He will not be able to do it alone for certain. The question for me is at what point will we begin to see beyond our own myopic lenses, and that of the greater good.

  4. Craig Peck

    Great stuff, Larry. The Johnston/East Side Memorial High School case you cited was particularly compelling – and vexing. I was struck too by your portrayal of how important principal and staff stability is to successful turnarounds. Yet, as you know, in many cities principal turnover rates are high, due at least in part to tough accountability pressures and high job expectations. Demands that principals produce immediate “results, not excuses” may carry unintended consequences.

    Finally, do you know about any reports detailing principals who serve districts as “turnaround specialists” – moving every couple years from struggling school to struggling school in an attempt to help improve achievement? From what I have seen and heard, the phenomenon exists but I have not read any formal documentation about it.

    Very provocative – I really appreciate you adding your voice to the Internet!

    • larrycuban

      Hi Craig,
      The research on turnarounds is slim and, as you would expect, small in stature. What I have found useful are a few reports on what has occurred when districts in various states, forced by consecutive years of failing to meet NCLB, intervened to help the school survive. See Andrew Calkins et al.,The Turnaround Challenge (Boston: Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, 2007); Center for Education Policy, Making Mid-Course Corrections: School Restructuring in Maryland, 2007; Frederick Hess and Thomas Gidt, “School Turnarounds: Resisting the Hype, Giving Them Hope,” Education Outlooks (American Enterprise Institute), February 2009 (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute). For a more positive view of turning around school turnarounds, see Daniel Duke, “Turning Schools Around,” Education Week, February 21, 2007, pp.35, 37.

  5. Sam

    Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of blogging!

    There are lots of examples of schools that were once low performing by a variety of measures that have subsequently improved, sometimes dramatically, more often moderately. Multi-year case studies are available in sevral places. Larry lists a couple above.
    The Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk (JESPAR) publishes encouraging case studies on a fairly regular basis, and on occasion has published a 5-year follow up.

    In the Louisiana School Effectiveness Study, Teddlie & Stringfield followed 16 schools for 11 years. Some of their lowest achieving schools at pre- became moderate-performing at post. Some of their relatively strong performing, high poverty schools at pre- stayed strong at post. The problem was that for every school that rose, another fell, so that over 11 years the mean achievement score on an independently administered achievement test, across the 16 schools, was flat.

    Where the research on improving measures in high poverty schools has tended to get confused is on the subject of “a one best way” toward school improvement. Various studies of sometimes very useful reforms (ex. The Eight Year Study from the 1930’s, and more recently the Comer School Development Program, Success for All, Core Knowledge) show that these reforms work (sometimes spectacularly) in some schools, and don’t work at all in others.

    There is a co-construction to school improvement. The external reform “experts” have to work with the locals and acknowledge that the locals are the world’s leading experts on the subject of their one school or district, marry their expertise, and design reforms that are both valid in the abstract and reliable in the local concrete.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the additional references and the admonition about a “one best way” failing rather than the “co-construction” of the reform that you mentioned. I wish I had put it that way.

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