Another Thought on Turnarounds

I teach a graduate school seminar at Stanford on “Good Schools and Good Districts: Research, Policy, and Practice.” In the first session, I told the 20 students the questions that drive the course such as: What is a “good” school or district? “Good” for what? “Good” for whom? “Good” for how long? How do you grow a “good” school and then scale up into a “good” district?

Then I asked the students, many of whom have been teachers and others who have held low-level policy posts in non-profit organizations, if they have any questions that they would like to have answered beyond the ones that I laid out.

There were a half-dozen but one stuck out in my mind. The student asked: What are the best ways to get rid of “bad” (i.e., chronically low performing) schools? That question, of course, is now being debated among federal, state, and local policymakers. The current (and constricted) policy answers I will deal with in class but here I would like to think aloud again (see post of August 8, 2009) about this crucial policy question affecting every single district in the nation with chronically failing schools.


These seemingly either-or choices have created much slugging and counter-punching among policy analysts, wonkish fans, and those who like to kibbitz at ringside. In one corner (in the white shirt and tie), are those who argue for SWAT-like teams taking over failing schools, changing the school staff and building shining exemplars of success. The evidence they tout comes from turned around failing companies, hospitals, governmental agencies and stand-out schools.

In the other corner (in the blue shirt) are those who argue that the best way to deal with failing schools or companies is to close them down and start new ones. The evidence they display come from two sources: the instability of turnarounds to stayed turned around and the successes of brand new schools started by KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire, and a host of charter schools.

Under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the initiative to turn around 5,000 “failure factories” puts white trunks on federal policymakers. Yet the how-to-do-it evidence is especially weak in guiding well-intentioned educators to create and sustain (much less scale up) successful schools out of chronically low performing schools. Nor are those policymakers and eager wonks wearing black trunks in any happier position since the step-by-step process of starting new schools is still trapped in telling and re-telling of isolated stories drawn from outliers. The fact is that no convincing evidentiary trail to persuade skeptical observers yet exists.

So as policy analysts and their retinues trade jabs, bob and weave in the ring, and score occasional points with judges and fans, uncertainty over the best direction to take with chronically failing schools remains.

Yet the stark policy alternatives of Close Bad Ones/Open New Ones and Turn Them Around hide important variations that seldom enter the fray.

Consider that the options of turnarounds and close bad ones/open new ones can also include those districts that either shut down low-performing schools or take existing ones and open new theme-driven magnets drawing teachers, students and parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds together. Not magical by any means–there are magnets that succeed in drawing middle-class students and parents to what was once a failing, high-poverty school and there are magnets that do not–the pursuit of revitalized mixes of students and parents goes on in sixty-five districts serving 3.5 million students that explicitly follow policies of socioeconomic integration. It is simply another option for districts to pursue if the political will and socioeconomic mixes are there.

Another neglected option to achieve turnarounds is when a principal and staff figure out, with district office support, what program best fit a school’s history and neighborhood. Then they work closely with parents to tailor the different components to fit the school, adapting their approach every time a loose thread 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 push. They scorn individual schools turned around here and there; they seek scores of schools “going to scale” with a sure-fire model in place not in five years, not in a decade, but in the next year or two.

Prompted by a student’s question, I offer in this post more policy options beyond simplistic, bumper-sticker ones that have guided the current counter-punching among those championing turnarounds or closing bad schools and opening new ones.


1 Comment

Filed under Reforming schools

One response to “Another Thought on Turnarounds

  1. F. Beryl Kohl

    Now that I got to your blog, I’ve been reading around on your articles and see that the changes one might hope for are still elusive.

    My son, teaching earth science, did some dynamic education turnarounds in two situations. And after 2 or 3 years did not get his contract renewed in both situations. He teaches science about as well as it can be taught. (He was honored as exceptional instructor in his department every year he was at Virginia Tech and as outstanding instructor in the whole university the year he got his PhD. They put him to work teaching the TAs.) My point being when we get teachers who can do the job, how can we keep them? (He is currently teaching at South Florida Polytechnic University and sending students as teachers into the local school district [lowest acheiving in Florida] to see what can be done.)

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