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Published in Print: February 6, 2008, as Inside the ‘Crucible’ of School Reform

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Inside the ‘Crucible’ of School Reform

Turning Around America’s Worst-Performing Schools

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You’re a new big-city superintendent. Your honeymoon seemed to end before the ink on the marriage certificate was dry. The challenges you face would give pause to even the most intrepid urban school leader.

It’s clear to you that all of those challenges crystallize in the group of schools that are your district’s chronic underperformers—the schools that by anyone’s definition are failing the students they serve. There are a hundred reasons why. High-poverty students who arrive with enormous skill deficits and disengaged parents, schools with multiple languages and cultures, constant upheaval from persistent student migration, disproportionately inexperienced teachers, overextended leaders, a stubbornly entrenched culture of low expectations … the all-too-familiar list goes on.

—Susan Sanford

These schools are your crucible—the place where all the challenges of urban education in 21st-century America have come together. Solve them, turn these schools around, and the rest of your job looks almost, well, easy by comparison.

But here’s the problem: No one knows how to do it, at least not at the scale required. Including you.

There’s a reason for that. Over the past decade, this nation has spent billions in local, state, and federal funds on fragmented, incremental school intervention strategies that, despite noble intentions, have had precious little impact in the neediest schools. We have been kidding ourselves. To address a challenge requiring the urgency of government response when capital markets falter, along with the private-sector energy of today’s renewable-resources movement, we have responded with the equivalent of a thousand mom-and-pop lemonade stands—and they aren’t even offering good lemonade.

The reason for this half-hearted and frankly amateurish response is clear enough. Until most recently, “turnaround” was not a word commonly associated with public education. Schools that have clearly and consistently failed to deliver on their mission have generally faced no threat of closure. Nor have they engaged in the kind of high-stakes shock therapy that failing enterprises in other sectors undergo—with closure as the outcome if turnaround fails.

But the politics of continuing to do nothing (or to continue tinkering around the edges) in these schools have now become untenable. The visibility of these chronically deficient schools has increased; the No Child Left Behind Act has seen to that.

We have responded to an urgent challenge with the equivalent of a thousand mom-and-pop lemonade stands—and they aren’t even offering good lemonade.

So what’s a new superintendent to do? Just as importantly, what’s a chief state education official faced with dozens (and in some states, hundreds) of failing schools across a range of mid- to large-size communities to do?

In the Gates Foundation-funded report “The Turnaround Challenge,” which resulted from two years of analysis of these issues, we suggest a framework of locally adaptable strategies for states and districts seeking to more proactively address their chronically underperforming schools. ("‘Turnaround’ Work Needs Rethinking, New Report Says," Nov. 14, 2007.)

We start with a straightforward idea: States and districts should work together to create zones offering the supportive operating conditions that characterize high-performing high-poverty schools. These schools are providing proof of the impact that top-notch public education can have on achievement and college matriculation among the most severely at-risk students. At these schools, decisions about staff, budget, schedule, and program tend to be mission-directed rather than mandated by bureaucratic compliance or collective bargaining obligation. Those decisions tend to result in teaching approaches and school models that look quite different from traditional public education.

It’s not a new idea. As has been reported in this publication and elsewhere, a number of entrepreneurial urban districts (Miami-Dade County, Fla., Chicago, Philadelphia, and more recently Boston and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., among others) have created versions of such a zone. New York City’s “Children First” initiative has leapfrogged them all and offered the option of changed operating conditions to all its schools—in exchange for greater accountability. The new idea in “The Turnaround Challenge” is that states, not just districts, should support the creation of such zones, to ensure that children everywhere have access to these educational opportunities.

But real transformation will take more than just changes in operating conditions, a fact made clear by the spotty national record of charter schools (all of which enjoy supportive operating conditions, but only some of which produce substantially higher achievement). That brings us to perhaps the biggest new idea in the report: To generate the new capacity required to accomplish successful turnaround at scale, a new kind of resource base of lead external turnaround partners needs to be created, along with a new set of partnership structures that support more effective school networks.

The traditional school-provider landscape looks like a bunch of disconnected silos. By the time a school reaches NCLB’s “restructuring” category (the law’s most extreme designation of failure), it has undoubtedly erected dozens of these project silos, all operating with little or no integration. It doesn’t have to be that way—and shouldn’t, if we are to address the challenge of school turnaround comprehensively.

Districts can reallocate funds but they can’t provide all the necessary resources at the scale of the need without state and federal government help.

Lead turnaround partners, a new kind of embedded resource, should integrate the work of all outside providers—from planning for restructuring, to instruction, to related back-office services—in clusters of from five to 10 schools organized around a common attribute, such as school type, student need, reform approach, geography, or feeder patterns. Since turnaround schools are almost always located in challenging, low-income environments, that also means coordinating with local agencies that provide child care, after-school programs, substance-abuse treatment, workforce training, and other social services, as Miami-Dade has done. Within the turnaround zone’s context of more flexible operating conditions, lead-partner networks would support selected functions (potentially ranging from teacher recruiting and leadership-team development, to special education services and regulatory compliance) that are most efficiently implemented across clusters of schools.

Where will these partners come from? States, working together with national and regional foundations, should help develop this model by creating “requests for proposals” for lead turnaround partners to act as “systems integrators” or general contractors for other partners involved in the implementation of a turnaround plan. Partners, districts, and schools would be held jointly accountable. In some cases, partners would act as school management organizations, assuming a higher level of both authority and risk, and controlling all aspects of school management. But most schools and clusters of schools would be served by lead-partner organizations, which would work collaboratively with districts under multiyear agreements.


The dilemma we posed at the outset of this essay is not a hypothetical one. In recent months, two new big-city superintendents—Michelle Rhee in Washington, and David Brewer in Los Angeles—have made news and generated controversy with emerging plans to address their worst-performing schools. To succeed, they will have to redefine this work by making turnaround clusters into innovative, resource-rich clubs that school leaders and outside partners actively want to join.

Where will those resources come from? Districts can reallocate funds, as has happened in New York City and Miami-Dade County, but they can’t provide all the necessary resources at the scale of the need without state and federal government help. Effective turnaround won’t come cheap; our report estimates the cost at from $250,000 to $1 million per school, per year. But that pales in comparison to the enormous social costs of students who emerge from high school with impoverished skills and desperately limited prospects. And about 5,000 schools serving 2.5 million students are likely to be in restructuring under the No Child Left Behind law by the 2009-10 academic year.

Superintendents (and would-be superintendents), take heart. We are on the doorstep of a broad, data-driven, policy-supported conviction that a new day must dawn for America’s neediest schools. They are our toughest challenge and our most crucial test. But they are also our most important opportunity for real change. For if we are not open to dramatic change in these schools—those in the bottom 5 percent, those that have failed more than half of their students for five, 10, or even more years in a row—then when and where will we ever be open to it?

Vol. 27, Issue 22, Pages 25-27

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