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School & District Management Opinion

What We Mean When We Say Turnaround

By Justin Cohen — April 11, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education, is guest-posting this week.

Greetings “Straight Up” readers! Before I start, I want to thank Rick for having poor enough judgment to let me occupy this blog for the next week. In all seriousness, though, it’s a real honor. As I’ve told Rick before, I think he is one of the few thinkers in education whose opinions are hard to predict because he considers each issue on its independent merits before crafting opinions. And he manages to be entertaining to boot! I will try to respect the nuance and lack of ideological certainty that is par for the course on this blog, and I thank him for the incredibly warm introduction. When I’m not blogging here, I write my own blog, “Meeting the Turnaround Challenge.” I hope that some of you will join me there once I’ve inevitably overstayed my welcome here!

Let’s start with a bit of semantic norming; sounds exciting, doesn’t it? When I get excited about school “turnaround,” I’m not referring to a government program. I’m not talking about an intervention option in federal policy, and I’m certainly not talking about an off-the-shelf program. What I’m talking about is an outcome for children. The national conversation about school turnaround has unfortunately - and somewhat understandably - gravitated toward discussing federal intervention options. Between Race to the Top last year and the continuing School Improvement Grant program, there are serious resources available for schools that persistently fail, so interest has naturally piqued.

But school turnaround is about the outcome. It’s when we go from fewer than a quarter of kids in a school achieving at high levels, to fewer than a quarter NOT achieving at those levels, or better. When my team at Mass Insight wrote The Turnaround Challenge in 2007, we looked for schools that already had achieved those kinds of outcomes and tried to codify what they did to get there. In that report we defined turnaround as an intervention that a) led to dramatic increases in student achievement within two years, and b) created a sustainable framework for achieving future excellence. Here are a few critical takeaways from our early research:

1) Turnarounds happen. They are rare, a fact that was confirmed again last year by the Fordham Institute, but they exist. Some schools that persistently fail manage to dramatically and sustainably change. Moving this work forward will mean finding a way to systematize what is now a fairly capricious process.

2) Light-touch interventions don’t work. We have a short piece on our website that we politely call “School Turnaround Strategies That Have Failed.” For too long folks have expected incremental changes to deliver breakthrough results. As I’ve said before, it’s like treating a cancer patient with cold medicine. Unfortunately, many districts and states are still getting away with making incremental changes in persistently low-performing schools. You have to change all of the critical levers of school change at once: people, time, money, and program.

3) Most states and districts lack both the policy conditions and executional capacity to conduct turnaround at scale. Turnaround is its own unique practice that requires special competencies. Fixing a broken institution is very different from managing a well-oiled machine. Every other field has turnaround specialists, namely individuals and organizations that specialize in quickly improving institutions that are failing. Turnaround isn’t a sure bet in any industry, but neither is the alternative, as I outlined last year in a letter to Education Next. As a field, educators are just starting to realize that turnaround is a unique set of skills, and we have to do more to embrace that.

So, where does this leave us? When I read Rick’s “Déjà Vu” post on turnaround a couple of weeks ago, I knew that part of my task here would be to make a compelling case for continuing to invest in turnaround. In that piece, he called out the weak track record of the Comprehensive School Reform Program when it comes to turning around schools. Here’s the thing, though: “Comprehensive School Reform” (CSR) never was, and should never have been, considered a strategy for turnaround. Many CSR models were, and continue to be, great school models. But they’re models, not execution strategies. We need turnaround strategies that pull multiple levers of change simultaneously, including rethinking human capital, governance, compliance hurdles, and spending in turnaround schools.

What I hope to do over the course of this week is to discuss school turnaround from four critical perspectives: the school, the district/cluster, the state, and the federal government. Yes, turnaround is about individual schools, but it’s also about systems. If a school fails for two years, shame on the school; if it fails for 20 years - which some do - shame on everyone. At the School Turnaround Group we talk about the “Three Cs": conditions, capacity, and clustering. I will try to examine each level through these lenses. Are we changing the conditions under which schools operate? Are we developing and insourcing the right kind of capacity - like best-in-class “Lead Partner” organizations - to fix schools? Are we clustering efforts so that we can actually scale what works?

In the process, I hope not to come across as a Pollyanna for the practice of turnaround, but rather to help us all think about the outcomes that any meaningful turnaround strategy should be trying to achieve: improving the educational attainment and future prospects for our country’s most vulnerable children.

--Justin Cohen

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