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School & District Management Opinion

Extracting the DNA of the Successful School Turnaround

By Justin Cohen — April 13, 2011 6 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.

As I promised Monday, I intend to look at school turnaround through four different lenses this week: the school, the district/cluster, the state, and the federal government. I want to begin the examination of the school-level practice with a short dialogue, which is the dumbed-down version of a fairly recurrent conversation that I’ve had with superintendents throughout the country:

Justin: First of all, I want to thank you for implicitly agreeing to be a part of a future blog gimmick. Do you have any high-poverty, high-performing schools?

Superintendent: Why, yes... yes we do! Former President Middle School outperforms all of its peer schools and has achievement rates comparable with the wealthier suburbs.

Justin: That’s fantastic! How do you account for that success?

Superintendent: Well, the school was a mess five years ago... until Mrs. Jones took over.

Justin: It sounds like Mrs. Jones is your hero turnaround principal.

Superintendent: Indeed.

Justin: Let me ask you this, which of your principals is the biggest pain-in-the-rear?

Superintendent: Oh, it’s definitely Mrs. Jones.

And... scene! I had a version of this conversation just yesterday. Overwhelmingly, the principals and leaders getting the fastest, most sustainable results in turnaround situations are rule-breakers. While this might seem counterintuitive, it actually makes complete sense when you look at what makes most high-poverty, high-performing (HPHP) schools tick.

In The Turnaround Challenge we analyzed an enormous amount of research and data on these schools. The Education Trust and others have been leading on this issue for years. We found that the DNA of HPHP schools could be articulated as “The Readiness Triangle.” The Readiness Triangle illustrates three critical properties of the HPHP school:

1) The Readiness to Teach - In these schools, teachers and leaders have responsibility for achievement, create a professional teaching culture, and personalize instruction.

2) The Readiness to Learn - In these schools, teachers and leaders take action against adversity, create close student-adult relationships, and build safety/discipline/engagement processes that reinforce positive behavior among students and professionals.

3) The Readiness to Act - In these schools, leaders have either implicit or explicit resource authority, possess resource ingenuity, and are able to exercise agility in the face of turbulence.

Whenever I talk about The Readiness Triangle, I discover that most folks are predisposed to agree with elements - but not all - of the principles described. The hardest part perhaps is creating a space in which these principles can coexist. The Readiness to Act is usually the most difficult for districts and states to swallow because it means introducing “charter-like” authority at the school-level. Authority without the capacity to act, however, is a recipe for mismanagement.

Which brings us back to Mrs. Jones. It’s easy to see how districts end up relying on amazingly talented principals who routinely break the rules when the rules are designed to produce incremental improvements at most schools... not to produce dramatic improvement in the few chronically failing schools. It’s probably easiest for districts to “look the other way” while their most talented turnaround artists skirt established rules, rather than reworking decades’ worth of policies. As long as these principals have the tacit approval of someone within the system - whether it’s the superintendent him-/herself or the community being served - they can usually get away with pushing boundaries.

But, what does it really mean to “break the rules?” I’m not talking about violating child safety provisions or criminal laws. I’m talking about getting around policies that were created mostly with good intentions, but aggregated with the myriad other policies end up hampering progress. I think that it’s useful to illustrate one critical instructional strategy decision in a turnaround school in order to see how that decision runs up against established “rules.” I’ll try to use the same instructional strategy decision in my future posts.

In many turnaround schools, students are multiple grade levels behind in reading. This is particularly pronounced in high schools, where it is not rare to have a huge proportion of incoming 9th graders reading below the 5th grade reading level. For the sake of this argument, let’s say 30% of a school’s 9th graders are thusly situated. First of all, this is deplorable, and this should never have been allowed to happen. But that’s a wash... we now have four years - maybe a little more - to prepare these students for graduation and beyond. Right now, most of the school’s 9th grade English/language arts faculty is certified in secondary school English. That’s great if you need to teach the thematic underpinnings of Moby Dick, but it’s not sufficient to teach an adolescent how to read. Teaching reading is just a different skill set, and that skill set is even more challenging to deploy with students for whom the normal challenges of adolescence are compounded by the fact that nobody has ever taught them how to read. So, we need what I like to call “reading ninjas”... teachers who are trained specifically to teach reading to teenagers. Some of your 9th grade faculty might be able to do that, but not all of them. So we need to both identify and recruit teachers who can accomplish this tall order. (This could be at odds with seniority provisions, recruitment timelines, and HR rules.) Then we need to schedule time in the school day for those students to spend extra time in a program designed to compensate for their reading deficits. (This could be at odds with district scheduling policy and “seat time” requirements.) Then we need to procure, and quickly implement, proven intervention programs. (This could be at odds with district purchasing and budget policies.)

I’ll stop there, because I realize that while a bunch of turnaround principals are probably nodding enthusiastically in agreement, the education policy community is nodding off. This, however, is the reality of what a turnaround principal faces on a day-to-day basis. Not only does s/he have to understand the school-level work, but s/he also has to effectively negotiate - or ignore - many of these policies in order to move the school forward.

Which leads us to the district conundrum. Do we simply rely on the cultivation of more hero principals who are able to simultaneously remake a school, while fighting district, state, and federal policy at every turn? Or do we clear out the bureaucratic underbrush in these schools and untie the hands of other principals who, while not hero-caliber, might succeed under different conditions and organizational management structures?

My obvious preference is the latter, but no matter what scenario you choose, someone has to provide political cover for the principals who are doing this most challenging work. I’ll talk more about what that looks like from the district/cluster perspective tomorrow!

--Justin Cohen

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