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School & District Management Opinion

What the NFL Can Teach About School Turnarounds

By Rick Hess — December 14, 2010 3 min read
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The turnaround craze is boiling again, with the excited announcement that lots of districts are taking federal money and spending a lot of it on high schools. The Department of Ed enthusiastically proclaimed that 730 schools have begun implementing a School Improvement Grant turnaround model, and that 48 percent of those are high schools. Whoo-whee! Look at the compliance that $3.5 billion buys. We must be halfway to solving our edu-woes already.

For those of a more skeptical bent, it’s that time of year to eyeball a sector where organizations have to find savvy, impassioned leaders; recruit a dozen or more skilled mentors; assemble dozens of exceptionally talented adults; and forge successful cultures. And they have to do this every year, as key personnel retire or depart, and where the average career spans just three or four years. That sector is the National Football League, where new regimes routinely take over dysfunctional franchises to turn things around.

Team presidents, general managers and coaches are paid millions to take this on--with vast rewards for success, brutal consequences for failure, and few constraints on their ability to select staff or players. Even with such freedom and spectacular stakes, one regime after another has failed to make a dent in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Washington.

The Washington Redskins, in fact, are a classic example of turnaround efforts gone south. Bought more than a decade ago by big-spending owner Dan Snyder, the team has chased stars in a rush to get better immediately. Arriving in Washington, those stars have disappointed. Meanwhile, a series of coaches have failed to establish a winning culture. The result: the Redskins are headed for another dispiriting, losing season, a year after a 4-12 record got their coach canned. As columnist Sally Jenkins observed in today’s Washington Post, “No matter who the Redskins sign or hire, their individuals saviors are unable to change the culture of failure--instead the culture seems to change them.”

Other efforts have succeeded. Perhaps the most impressive example is in New England, where a management took over a laughingstock of a franchise in the 1990s and turned it into one of the league’s premier teams. In the NFL, unlike Major League Baseball, teams are limited in how much they can pay their players. So owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichick couldn’t simply outbid other teams in building their 11-2 team. Instead of chasing players who are stars elsewhere and hoping their skills translate, Belichick has specialized in finding overlooked players who can excel in a particular role. Rather than high draft choices or big-dollar free agents, he has built team after team with cast-offs and low draft picks, and by taking full advantage of the skills that his players have. Thus, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls with a quarterback who was chosen 199th in the NFL draft and lineups studded with players who had been cast aside by other teams, frequently because they were deemed too small or too slow.

When we talk about SIG turnarounds, the four models include things like replacing half the staff, handing control to a charter operator, or “transforming” the school by replacing the principal and embracing instructional reform. All of these have promising elements, but all are likely to disappoint absent a more relentless, ruthless, deep-rooted willingness to create self-sustaining cultures of excellence where mediocrity once ruled.

It’s not about replacing half the staff with teachers with high value-added scores. That may be a useful jump-start, but nothing more. Sustained success requires building schools that constantly seek and sift talent, bending routines and teaching assignments to fit the strengths of school faculty and the needs of the kids, and transforming culture so that it changes the attitudes of new staff and students before they can change it. Today, I fear that most transformation efforts feel short on all these counts. For an example, just check out the debacle involving the Friends of Bedford that Michelle Rhee so optimistically brought to turn around Dunbar High School just a couple years ago.

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