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School & District Management Opinion

Changing the Turnaround Risk Calculus

By Justin Cohen — April 15, 2011 5 min read
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Note: Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education, is guest-posting this week. You can read more from Justin on his blog “Meeting the Turnaround Challenge” and follow him on Twitter at @juscohen.

We’ve reached the end of the “Rick Hess Straight Up” Turnaround Takeover, and I want to thank Rick again for lending me this space. I also want to thank Olivia Meeks from Rick’s team, who has been orchestrating this whole affair and has been incredibly helpful. Finally, I want to thank my wonderful team at the Mass Insight School Turnaround Group, for being the most talented, passionate group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Our team works directly with states and districts that are implementing dramatic turnaround solutions - namely Partnership Zones - and we are always looking for talented individuals to work on our intensive field engagements. In the last two years we have leveraged our experience in the policy/research arena to build a field practice, predicated on performance-based partnerships, of which I am extremely proud. Our doors are always open.

As I promised on Monday, I wanted to examine school turnaround through four different lenses this week: the school, the district, the state, and the federal government. For the sake of both editorial economy and my personal sanity, I’m going to combine the discussion of the state and federal roles into one final post. If Rick ever invites me back, I’ll be sure to focus on a few of my other favorite topics: the politics of school turnaround (very local!), how to meaningfully engage communities in this work (early, often, and authentically!), and the student voice in school turnaround (revelatory and underappreciated!).

The state role in school turnaround has become much more robust with the new requirements around the School Improvement Grant program (SIG). States always have been responsible for disbursing the funds attached to this program, but as we illustrated in our recent report, “School Improvement Grants: Take 2,” states cannot manage this program the way they have managed it in the past if they want to get breakthrough results in schools. States have a number of roles to play in this process: creating political cover for districts that want to take dramatic steps, aligning state policies to the flexibility needed to make substantial school changes, adjusting state personnel conditions to facilitate staff changes, and cultivating a marketplace of strong Lead Partner organizations, to name a few.

The easiest way to think about the state role in turnaround, though, is to think of SIG as an opportunity to create an “intra-state Race to the Top.” All states will receive SIG funds again this year, and states have a choice with respect to how to use the funds. They can either:

A) disburse the funds based on a formula, or
B) create a competition wherein only the districts and schools with the most ambitious plans are funded.

Whereas option A is the politically safe option, option B creates the conditions for success. By only rewarding the most ambitious plans, states can make larger, more targeted grants at fewer schools; effectively monitor the extent to which districts are achieving leading and lagging indicators of change; and provide support to smaller, rural districts that may not possess the resources and personnel bench to tackle the work alone.

In addition to rewarding districts with ambitious plans, states also should be willing to exercise more dramatic measures - like directly intervening in schools or putting districts in receivership - when districts continually fail to meet expectations. The challenge, however, is that state takeover is unlikely to be a viable mechanism for long-term sustainability and school change. Rather, this extreme option can help a small number of schools to improve, while compelling other districts to reach for more dramatic actions... but only if takeover is a credible threat. It’s amazing to me that many districts view the least intrusive SIG option - “transformation” - as a “stick.” This is nuts. If transformation is the stick, states aren’t being aggressive enough in exercising their authority to eliminate the “paths of least resistance.”

As for the federal role, the new requirements for SIG - which were created in parallel with Race to the Top - are a good start. Most notably, the requirements contained four “intervention options” for schools designated as persistently low-achieving: transformation, turnaround, restart, and closure. While the biggest path of least resistance was eliminated - the “other” option from the prior NCLB restructuring provisions - there’s still too much wiggle room. Some districts elect “transformation” and just move principals from one failing school to another. Districts can elect “restart” to avoid making any staffing changes whatsoever, while creating a faux charter entity. If we continue to be tight on means and loose on ends, we’ll spend too much time trying to get the inputs right, rather than examining whether or not schools have improved. Moreover, as I mentioned yesterday, the federal requirements are almost silent with respect to the role of the district. We cannot continue to hold systems harmless for the performance of individual schools.

Which brings me back to the question of outcomes for students, which I discussed at the beginning of this crazy week. I called this post “Changing the Turnaround Risk Calculus” because I believe that this should be the primary state and federal role. If the schools and districts are responsible for the day-to-day change management in turnaround schools, the states and feds should ensure that maintaining the pitiful status quo is riskier than taking a chance on serious change. Right now, the downside risk of trying something new in failing schools, and subsequently falling short, is greater than continuing to fail in the same old ways. This is only possible because we haven’t focused enough - as an education community and as a country - on the student outcomes to which our policy changes aspire. By utilizing credible “sticks” for schools and districts that continue to fail, and creating meaningful “carrots” for schools and systems that want to “do the right thing,” we’ll get a lot further than we will by mandating inputs.

It has been a wonderful week, and I thank you readers for taking the time to examine the hard work of turning around low-performing schools. If you like what you’ve read, you should join me at my regular blog, “Meeting the Turnaround Challenge.” I can promise you that I’m less wordy and more irreverent there; who knows why I used Rick’s house as a place to clean up my act. Have a wonderful weekend!

--Justin Cohen

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