How Do Teachers Teach in Turnaround Schools?

7th grade EngLots of stories from principals, parents, and students reveal practices that range from marvelous to malign. Individual teachers give us a sense of what happens in their classrooms. Rafe Esquith in LA writes about his lessons and his kids’ experiences in an elementary school; Sarah Fine, an English teacher in a D.C. charter school, tells of her successes and failures. But beyond stories and first-hand accounts, helpful as they are in giving us a peek into different classrooms, we know very little about the kinds of daily lessons that unfold across the grades and in academic subjects. We know especially little about classroom teaching in those turnaround schools that get extra resources, new (and young) staff, and the charge to go from a chronically failing school to a high-flier.

So what? What’s wrong with being largely ignorant of how teachers teach in turnaround schools or even high-performing ones? Knowing how teachers teach is critical because school boards and superintendents assume that their decisions to turnaround schools (and adopting other policies targeting better student performance) will alter classroom teaching and lead to improved test scores.

In short, every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons. From the feds putting money on the stump in “Race to the Top” to getting states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give laptops to each teacher and student, contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that the new policy will bring to classrooms. And one of those crucial assumptions is that teachers will change how they teach for the better. Rarely are serious questions asked about these assumptions before or after hyped-up policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) deployed to classrooms.

Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as a cure-all for the ills of urban schools, including turnaround schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., turning around failing schools, mayoral control, small high schools, pay-for performance plans, and parental choice) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policy. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “Race to the Top”) and policy action (e.g., adopting and implementing policies) from classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers teach as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students learned as a result of different lessons).

Subsequent blogs will take up the critical importance of the third question and go beyond the stories we hear from parents, principals, and students and the individual accounts of savvy classroom teachers such as Esquith and Fine.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

6 responses to “How Do Teachers Teach in Turnaround Schools?

  1. Betty Achinstein

    Dear Larry,
    I appreciate your clear thinking and critical questions about the actual practices in “turn around schools.” I am deeply concerned with the learning opportunities offered to the especially new teachers who tend to populate such schools. I wonder to what degree are we creating supportive learning environments for both adults and teachers as we think about what it takes to “turn-around schools.”
    Thank you for your important blog and your commitment to asking about the actual practice in classrooms, which will make the greatest difference in the lives of students.

  2. David Brazer

    I believe this first post on the subject of what happens as a result of improvement efforts asks critical questions that ought to keep researchers busy, at least in the near term. So rarely is the logic of action of policy makers brought into question. Testing that logic with specific evidence is even more unusual. I agree that we need to look harder at the concept of “turnaround” anything–school, principal, or whatever. The larger issue is about efforts to improve school performance more generally. We need to question that logic of action as well.

    I am wondering if Larry and/or others have considered collecting data from the increasingly common practice of administrator classroom walkthroughs as part of providing feedback to teachers. A colleague of mine (Scott Bauer) noticed in a study of principals in Louisana that they were not using their walkthrough data for school improvement planning. I wonder if it would be possible for researchers to gather that data as a window on how teachers are teaching and the effects of school improvement efforts. The variability in the quality of walkthrough data would, of course, be a huge potential problem.

  3. Nancy Lester

    I can’t seem to access David’s response, but I will go ahead with another one.

    It seems as if tests drive curriculum and instruction (not new, of course, and most of the time the results of this test-driven culture leads to more of the same rote, memorization learning and didactic teaching). In the rare case, I am thinking particularly of the 4th Grade literacy test here in New York City, the test has led to more thoughtful and analytic learning and teaching. Because most of the test requires children to read and write responses to genuine texts and to interpret ideas in fiction and nonfiction texts, the literacy curriculum and professional development in the New York City public schools have undergone revolutionary change. Some of this is indicated by the amount of time devoted to children reading, writing, and learning how to read and write productively and constructively in 90 minute blocks. Some of this change is indicated by the kinds of texts children are interacting with: trade books written by authors representing a wide range of diverse voices with characters (real or imaginary) who represent diverse voices and cultures. And some of this change is indicated by how children’s literacy is assessed – through one on one conferencing, portfolios, and evidence-based artifacts.

    I’m out of steam here. Thanks for the opportunity to blow some.


    • David Brazer

      I agree that it is possible to have creative tests that support better instruction. We used to call these authentic assessments. In higher ed. we are now calling them peformance-based assessments. The problem with such assessments seems to be supporting them over time. They are time-consuming and expensive to use and they can become controversial. When I was a principal in CA, statewide testing involved excellent language arts and math assessments that got scuttled when powerful people disagreed with test content. Governor Wilson pulled the tests over the state board’s protest, I believe. So, the point is a good test can help, but only if it can be sustained long enough for teachers to learn how to use it well without trying to narrow the curriculum to only the material they anticipate on the test.

  4. Mary Slattery Johnson

    Hi Larry,

    It’s refreshing to read your thought provoking questions again! Living down in San Diego, I was wondering what you and your readers thought about the contentious relationships between the teachers unions and the school board in Los Angeles.

    The decision to turn over 50 district funded schools to charter management is a reform in itself. From what I can gather, it seems that the central conflicts focus on the difficulty of firing ineffective tenured teachers due to union contracts and the failure of the district administration to include teachers in “top down reforms”. Since this argument has been played out for decades across the country, haven’t there been cases of “making it work”?

    In addition, another superintendent of San Diego Unified has “fled” to Houston making this position a “revolving” door due to a polarized school board.

    Can’t we all get along?;-)
    Mary Slattery Johnson

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