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….
* 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.