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Turning Around Turnaround - Elephants and the Role of Districts

By Heather Zavadsky — October 01, 2012 5 min read
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Note: Heather Zavadsky, education consultant and author of School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts, is guest-posting this week.

Hello Straight Up Readers--great to be here. Before I launch into my topic, I’d like to define a couple points. Similar to Justin Cohen in his RHSU guest blog in April, when I say “turnaround,” I am referring to the process of sparking dramatic improvement in chronically underperforming schools and districts. At times I might be referring to one of the four prescribed models from the US Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant program (SIG), where, for instance, at least 50% of a school’s staff and the principal are replaced. But I prefer to think of turnaround as a process, not a model. It is a process that attacks low performance from various points to design a better system across districts, and subsequently, in schools. Turnaround needs to move beyond the models and scope of SIG; the $3.5+ billion for Race to the Top and SIG won’t last forever, and it must be invested wisely to yield sustainable improvements.

Now let’s address a few elephants in the room. First, we cannot ignore the bigger question Andy Smarick posed in his Education Next article, “The Turnaround Fallacy.” Can schools really be improved, meaning, outside of closing them and starting fresh? Good question; we’ve been trying to fix schools for decades, with no clear answer. However, there is evidence of sustained improvement in schools and districts; some as fresh starts and some that improved upon what was there.

Next elephant: Can SIG improve schools? Well, that remains to be seen. The first glimpse of results from the Department of Education found academic improvement in about a quarter of the schools in their sample in the first two years. It’s early, but I’m not surprised that the results are spotty. Why? There is some real merit around the criticisms of SIG, which point to its lack of flexibility and failure to see school improvement as a process that should leverage districts rather than apply a school-by-school approach.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing SIG. Many district leaders assert that ED has shown a necessary and helpful commitment to improve struggling schools, and the funds are a tool to seed this process. Furthermore, the next round of Race to the Top funds will go directly to districts as opposed to states like the previous round, and districts will be scored on is their ability to support failing schools--these are steps in the right direction. Schools can improve, but not on a scalable or sustainable level unless they are nested within a well-functioning district.

I strongly believe the turnaround dialogue needs to move beyond a single-school approach. Let’s face it, a school focus is tenuous. Heroic principals and masterful teachers eventually leave; school selection for families is largely driven by zip code; a cool bio-tech program won’t help kids reading significantly below grade level; and having every school determine their own inputs is dangerous. Remember, kids and educators move, and grade and school transitions will happen; there has to be a centralized source to ensure quality and coherence that can factor out zip code.

Quality and alignment start by ensuring that schools possess certain essential elements. The bottom line is, strong leaders and teachers, high quality instruction, continuous progress monitoring, immediate interventions, and support from key stakeholders are what move the needle. Fragmentation is the killer and alignment the key. We have also learned from years of research that there are no silver bullets. Context matters, and piecemeal reform will not work. Layering one system’s approach on top of another system puts coherence and efficiency at risk. Solutions need to fit the needs of the actors in the schools and district.

I contend that the district is the logical catalyst for building commitment, clarity, and alignment systemwide. This does not mean districts should hand everything down from high; they need to know when to lead, when to facilitate, when to provide flexibility and nurture innovation, and when to get out of the way. To address these issues and support improvement across an entire system, districts can:

• Extend the curriculum beyond state standards, and provide a framework for schools around instructional beliefs. Teachers should be clear on what should be taught, and what high-quality student products look like.

• Maintain instructional alignment by providing a clear scope and sequence that ensures there are no mistaken skips or repeats in skills.

• Attract high quality personnel through a strong reputation, an early and easy hiring process, and an understanding that all policy and practice impacts personnel. Districts should also provide targeted job-embedded training and supports, and consider succession planning at all levels; even for the central office.

• Provide easily access to multiple sources of data (in one tool if possible) to inform decision-making, identify needs and supports, and provide structured time to interpret, discuss, and respond to data.

• Provide access and supports to high-quality interventions. This might mean working with external partners, and spending time testing, piloting, and evaluating particular interventions.

• Be tight on outcomes and loose on means when appropriate. Having 20 different reading programs will not work for program alignment, particularly for mobile kids. However, you can allow leaders to have flexibility in how they structure schools and teach, as long as they produce appropriate results.

Once you lay these elements out, the integral role of the district cannot be ignored. Districts can still provide flexibility and nurture innovation, and should. However, each school is part of a system, and that system can help schools creatively address the necessary reform elements without risking coherence.

The devil is in the details. This list is nice, but not very instructive. My next blog will highlight several districts from my book on school turnarounds where the district has played a key role not only in moving the needle in struggling schools, but also maintaining the difficult balance between coherence and flexibility.

--Heather Zavadsky

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.