I posted this piece in August of 2009. I offer it again because the points I raise in it remain relevant today. Turning around a school means that federal, state, and local officials identify a low-performing school, remove staff, and new administrators and staff put certain policies in place that will get teachers to alter their lessons, develop strong relationships with their students, and raise test scores. I questioned the wisdom of that policy direction years ago when I wrote this post and continue to do so now.
Lots 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 to entice educators 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 classroom outcomes that the new policy promises. 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.,reconstituting staff in low-performing 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 second and third questions 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.
Since writing this post over four years ago, I went searching for evidence that might support the practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Education in turning around schools. I found little evidence that would support such a major policy direction embedded in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. See here, here, and Mintrop, et. al PDF