Tag Archives: turnaround schools,

Failing Schools: Conflicts over How to Write, Talk, and Make Films about Them

I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years in schools that were black and poor. Even before test scores determined whether a school was failing, the three urban schools I taught in were viewed as ____ (choose your favorite word: losers, basket cases, lousy, failures) because of the neighborhood in which the school was located and the color of the students’ skin. And that was over a half-century ago.

When I would read newspaper articles about where I taught then, the school often had the adjective “ghetto” or “slum” in front of it. Both were accurate insofar as characterizing students’ color of skin, family income and residential segregation that kept families where they lived but was far too simplistic in overlooking the many men and women in these neighborhoods who took pride in their homes, brought back weekly paychecks, and urged police officials to rid their streets of muggings, gangs, and drug-related crime.

Here is where my values come into conflict in writing about failing schools. I prized, then and now, the honest portrayal of unassailable facts of any low-performing school including the ones I worked in more than a half-century ago. By all academic criteria, they were doing poorly. The numbers graduating high school, dropouts, suspensions–name any school-wide metric–and they would have registered on the failing side of the ledger. The schools were in the center of neighborhoods that were different from the rest of the city as a result of residential and class segregation. Non-working and working poor families mixed with upwardly striving ones sometimes on the same street. Sure, those schools were housed in old buildings containing under-resourced science labs and libraries with  few books. The truth of those meager investments  and failure on common academic measures has to be told.

Yet–you knew there was a “yet” coming–another value that I prize is capturing the complexity of what happens in failing schools decades ago and now. As  an insider in those schools, I saw first-hand the cadre of teachers who stayed late and came in early to work with students who wanted to succeed academically. I saw the many students, the first in their families to attend college, put in super-intense work in their academic classes. And not to be ignored, I saw first-hand the consequences of poverty that spilled over the school in dozens of ways. I also saw uncaring teachers, administrators who twiddled their thumbs, and students who, for any number of reasons, acted out and eventually left school.

So how do I capture, then and now, the mix of persistent effort by some determined, hardworking teachers, students, and upwardly-striving parents who succeed in the midst of neighborhood poverty within a school doing poorly academically? For sure, not a black-white picture but ones shaded in gray.

Yet authors, artists, turnaround specialists, and even academic experts over the decades–I have learned–are far less interested in grays. Black and white hats fit their tastes better. For over the past half-century,  portraying urban schools as unredeemable failures has become a cottage industry of books, articles, speeches, and films.

These authors and artists have faced no dilemma. They have created simple tropes that tell hero and villain stories about failing urban schools.  Over time, they have resorted to blaming students, families, neighborhoods, and teachers for school failures.Consider Hollywood films such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Cooley High” (1975), Boyz in the Hood (1991) that fastened images of bad kids, bad teachers, bad principals, and crime-ridden neighborhoods onto the public consciousness. That tradition continues with “Bad Teacher” and “The Substitute.” Books, such as Shut Those Thick Lips have pursued similar tropes:

Not all of the stories use these “bad” tropes. Some artists and experts flip the negative and make bad teachers (and principals) into heroes and bad kids into likable, hard-working students who, with a little help, can pull up their socks and succeed. “Good” tropes replace “bad” ones.  There is the heroic teacher in To Sir with Love  and Dangerous Minds and those hard working Latino students and ever-demanding teacher in Stand and Deliver. Don’t forget that in-your-face principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me,  and entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada who rescues the classroom, school, and neighborhood in “Waiting for Superman.” Good or bad stories still have villains be they families, students, teachers, principals, and “the system.”

So here is the policy point I want to make in analyzing conflicts I face in writing about failing schools. What too often goes unnoticed in today’s scramble to turning around failing schools–“dropout factories,” where district officials fire the entire staff and restructure the school to convert a loser into a winner is how even in those failing schools effective work by cadres of teachers, students, and parents exist. I don’t think it is uncharitable to point out that there is little evidence that firing staffs works to turn around schools–called “restructuring.” I am reminded of some critic of the U.S.’s failed Iraqi policy, called that strategy “clumsy gestures based on imperfect knowledge.”   Current turnaround policies are anchored in tropes that no longer blame young children and youth as they did decades ago. Instead, top decision-makers resort to other familiar ones to explain failure: bad teachers and bad administrators.

Other alternatives? Some say the best thing to do is just close the school and start anew. Others, including myself, say that working closely and investing in those teachers, students, and parents who have somehow overcome the academic disengagement, the inertia, and  negative peer-driven cultures in these failing schools is the route to take. Both alternatives, however, are experiments since no body of evidence clearly supports either. But at least the latter one avoids creating anew the villains that populate so many films, stories, and accounts of failing schools.







Filed under Reforming schools

Slogans in Businesses and Schools

Located in Menlo Park (CA) near the tidal marshes at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay, Facebook has 11 open-space buildings holding 6,000 employees. Open space architecture means no one has an office with doors.  You want privacy, wear earphones.

None of the open-space arrangements surprised me. What did, however, surprise me in the description of Facebook’s workplace was that there were posters everywhere that “exhort changing, hacking, and fearlessness.” Corporate slogans like “Hack,” “Taking risks gives me energy,” and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” adorned walls, partitions, and employee entrances as constant reminders of what the company values (see slide show of Facebook, Google, and Twitter buildings).

My surprise may well be because of my limited exposure to these companies other than what I have read in articles and books plus what I heard from friends and their sons and daughters who work in these organizations. Apparently, company leaders believe that posting slogans everywhere strengthens the workplace culture and keeps the corporate vision and values driving Facebook at eye-level. Do such displayed slogans actually increase the sense of community and shared values and lead to higher job performance? I do not know.

There is another reason I was surprised by the ubiquity of placards in the Facebook workplace. In my experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I had seen in the past three decades many similar posters in low-income, largely minority schools exhorting students and teachers to learn and achieve. In these schools strenuous efforts to create a culture of achievement, success, and right behavior for every student is everywhere. For example in KIPP elementary and secondary schools, such posters abound:




And here are some photos of wall posters in other urban schools that are 90 percent minority and poor:IB poster

Every kid specialimages-4

My memory fails me, however, about the days that I taught in three urban, largely minority high schools between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, I do not recall such posters urging academic success and responsible behavior. Yet when I returned to those very same schools in 2013, such posters as shown above, are everywhere in the school.


So I asked myself: when did such posters appear in urban schools? What influenced schools to post these slogans–similar to Facebook’s placards–to get students and teachers to work harder and produce higher student achievement?

When Did Posters Exhorting Students and Teachers Begin To Appear?

No doubt there is no one single moment or even year. But my guess is that such posters began appearing in the late-1960s to early-1970s in alternative schools formed to uplift ethnic and racial pride. The belief was that pride in race and ethnicity is a precondition for academic improvement.



Beyond guessing, I am more sure of the movement to spread Effective Schools, beginning in the early 1980s, on the appearance of posters urging urban students to respect themselves, work hard in school, do well on tests, and succeed. Correlates of “effective schools” included “Climate of High Expectations,” “Clear and Focused Mission,” for example.  As attention and resources shifted to student outcomes in these years, efforts to make schools “effective” by following five, six, or more factors associated with high-achieving schools in low-income neighborhoods prompted many school leaders and teachers to display posters in school hallways and classrooms.



Furthermore,  the effective schools movement in  the 1980s converged with numerous initiatives within the corporate sector to restructure and re-culture firms to improve an organization’s performance. Those were the years (e.g., Nation at Risk) where harnessing school improvement to a stronger economy became the central task of policy elites and national leaders. Swapping ideas and practices between for-profit businesses and schools have occurred periodically in the past and were strongly encouraged by both corporate and national leaders then and since.

Do these slogans work? I really do not know for either the Facebook company or schools. Such school slogans certainly reassure students, teachers, parents, and school visitors that key values are displayed and important. Surely, the climate of a school, its norms, ceremonies, and traditions matter to how children, youth, and adults carry out their daily work. But far more critical is that school leaders, faculty, students, and community not only share the vision and values embedded in those slogans but also have the skills, wherewithal, and will to make them happen daily in hallways, cafeterias, and classrooms.


Filed under school reform policies

Turnaround Schools, Teacher Seniority, and Union-bashing*

School reform is steady work. In September 2008,  Markham Middle School (Watts, Los Angeles)–near the bottom of the state’s list of failing schools–got a new principal and a hardworking, young staff. Under the umbrella of the Mayor’s initiative to improve schools and using one of the federally-endorsed turnaround models, the Markham staff began its work.

Then six months later, Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD) budget cuts required pink slips to be sent to about ten percent of LAUSD teaching staff. However, district policy required that those last hired had to receive those reduction-in-force notices first thus decimating Markham’s high energy, fired up young staff including the principal. Even though half of Markham’s staff was eventually rehired (including the principal), still the fire fueling the turnaround was doused. Especially so, after the middle school had to fill remaining vacancies with veteran teachers let go elsewhere in the district according to the seniority provision in the contract.  Markham made offers to 21 experienced teachers of whom two accepted. Since then, the school had to hire long-term substitutes to fill the vacancies. Last Spring, another round of budget cuts again sent those young teachers home.

The story, according to champions of the Markham turnaround, is simple: Markham meets  contract: contract’s seniority rule wins, reform loses. If it were not for the unions….

Yes, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)  is a powerful interest group representing 45,000 teachers. They help elect members to the school board. Furthermore, the school board awarded teacher-led, union-backed groups the operation of 29 low-performing schools. Too late for Markham, however. Then a jolt to the union. A recent school board decision challenged the seniority rule and, over-riding UTLA arguments, the board identified 45 target schools where “last hired, first fired” would not apply. Yes, one of those targeted schools is Markham Middle School. While reform is “steady work,” no one said it is easy or blame-free.

Blaming unions for higher teacher salaries and less money available for instruction, blaming unions for protecting teachers from dismissal, blaming unions for rules that make it hard for teachers to teach and students to learn is in the air that business-driven, “no excuses” reformers currently breathe.

Deep hostility toward teacher unions won’t easily go away even when facts make clear that many teacher unions have worked closely with reform-minded school boards on high-profile issues of charters, pay-4-performance, and evaluation (e.g., Denver, Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore). Or even when facts about the lack of collectively bargained contracts in southern “right-to-work” states paint a picture of these states doing less well on national tests than states with union contracts.

In short, teacher unions vary in their support and opposition to charters, pay-4-performance schemes, and current business-driven school reform initiatives. They are not villains as cast in recent documentaries and manifestos. Nor are they heroes as union publications have portrayed. Neither have unions caused the failure of largely minority and poor urban and rural schools across the nation. Teacher unions are private groups representing millions of teachers who pay dues to have a voice and a seat at the table when school boards, mayors, governors, and the U.S. President and Congress make major policy decisions that affect their salaries, working conditions, and students for whom they are responsible.

Are some teacher unions hostile to reforms they believe will destroy their hard-won gains?  Yes. Are some teacher unions determined partners with school boards and superintendents embarked on major revisions in policy and practice? Yes. And the majority of teacher unions are spread along a continuum between these two poles.

While I surely hope that LAUSD’s Markham Middle School will get turned around, I do not know whether it will happen. The truth is that there is no villain in the Markham story. Neither the teacher union nor the contracted seniority rule that the school board approved is villainous. Nor do  Superintendent Ray Cortines and the school board wear black hats. Can “no excuses” reformers, well intentioned and determined as they are, do the “steady work” of reform without trash-talking veteran teachers and their unions? I sure hope so because, in the end, it is the teachers who work everyday in classrooms. Not the reformers.

*In the interest of full disclosure, when I was a teacher I was a member of teacher unions in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. When I was a D.C. administrator, I was part of the school board bargaining team on professional development; when I was superintendent in Arlington, we bargained with five different unions; the school board negotiator reported to me and the school board. I met monthly with the teacher union executive director to discuss (but not decide) issues that had arisen that needed attention.


Filed under school reform policies

Another Dirty Secret about Turnaround Schools (2)

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….

“We must:
* 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.

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Two Dirty Secrets of Turnaround Schools (1)

In “The Good Soldiers,” a book about an Army battalion stationed on the outskirts of Baghdad during the surge in 2007, David Finkel writes about the disconnect between Washington policy elite talk being “more strategic, more political, more policy-driven”–and soldiers’ actual on-the-ground daily acts of “bravery and tragedy.” The gap between macro-policy and micro-reality, Finkel writes, could not be closed with “windshield tours” by Washington politicos who rush in “hear a general or two, get into a Humvee, see a market surrounded by new blast walls, get a commemorative coin,” and fly out.

The policy/practice disconnect occurs not only between politicos and the battlefield soldiers. There is also a profound gap between current federal and state policymakers’ talk of turning around 5,000 failing schools across the country and actual on-the-ground school experiences of students, principals, and teachers. Macro-talk by inside-the-Beltway bloggers and policymakers make turning around “dropout factory schools” akin to turning around bankrupt businesses. It ain’t so.

St. Louis school district policy makers, for example, hired a successful New York City bankruptcy firm for $ five million in 2003 to lift dismal test scores, increase pitifully low graduation rates, and get the district out of debt. The firm appointed as superintendent a former CEO from Brooks Brothers. He closed over 20 schools, cut nearly $80 million from the budget, out-sourced food, transportation, and other services, and dropped over 1,000 employees–all in 13 months.Then the hot-shot CEO and company left town. Since then a turnstile superintendency and state takeover have not altered the fact that St. Louis remains a basket case of a school district with dropout factories intact.

Maybe St. Louis is too extreme of an example of chasing the corporate model of success. Perhaps a glimpse of the private sector record in turning around bankrupt companies might incite more confidence. Researchers found that corporate experts who took “an ax and a machine gun to your existing organization” (or, as academics would say in less vivid language, making fundamental changes) would still fail to turnaround 7 of 10 firms. So St. Louis’s experience is hardly an outlier.

Keep in mind, however, that those researchers estimate 3 out of 10 businesses do turn around. Assume that this percentage, either higher or lower, would apply to schools as well. Surely, Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, and charter school stars have created successful schools and made policy wonks beam with pride. But the experts and policymakers’ high failure rate of 7o percent in turning around chronically low-performing schools and businesses should give even the most ardent champion sufficient pause. Perhaps that lethal failure rate is due to the lack of know-how.

Presently, no researcher, no expert, not even the President of the United States can say with any confidence how to turn around a failing school. Researchers are clear about that. Then again, few decision-makers ever waited for research evidence to decide on a policy. The lack of solid evidence, however, is not one of the dirty secrets that I mention in the title since it is common for educational decision-makers to mandate policies that have little research evidence.

The first dirty secret is that even in those few schools that end up as success stories: Turned around schools often do not stay turned around. There are, indeed, magical moments when people, resources, outside expertise, and community coalesce neatly to handcraft a successful school; yet these schools, be they charters or neighborhood schools, seldom stay together for more than a few years and, either slowly or swiftly, disintegrate and resume their prior dismal state. Stability in academic performance–five or more years–in schools defined as “effective,” “successful,” or whatever label is attached to them are simply hard to sustain. Successful schools, however defined, are fragile inventions that easily fall apart when school leaders transfer, key teachers depart or no longer collaborate, community activists lose interest or a dozen other changes occur including shifting the measures of achievement. The disconnect between macro-policy and micro-practice is anchored in this lack of know-how and a lackluster commitment to stay the course in sustaining success. The next post will take up the second dirty secret of turnaround schools.


Filed under school reform policies

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