School & District Management

Scholars Reaching Outside Education for School Fixes

By Debra Viadero — August 14, 2007 7 min read
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The story of how New York City’s beleaguered police department turned itself around between 1994 and 1996 has become a classic case study in graduate business schools.

Management students routinely read how William Bratton, the brash former police commissioner from Boston, took the helm of the Big Apple’s force and transformed it by introducing a computerized data-management system and changing the culture of police work.

Now, some education scholars, in newly published papers and a book out this month, say educators looking to turn around failing schools ought to heed lessons from leaders in other fields, such as Mr. Bratton, who have pulled off similar feats.

“There’s something to be learned from what other organizations have done in the corporate world, in churches, hospitals, and police departments, and, surely, there are things that are applicable to our business,” said Joseph F. Murphy, a professor of educational leadership at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and the co-author of Turning Around Failing Schools: Lessons From the Organizational Sciences, published by Corwin Press, of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

In practice, though, most school leaders and education researchers don’t refer to that wider body of research, according to Mr. Murphy and doctoral student and co-author Coby V. Meyers. “Indeed,” they write in the new volume, “there is an insularity and parochialism in the turnaround literature that is as arrogant as it is ill-advised.”

Mr. Murphy and Mr. Meyers are among a handful of education scholars who in recent years have begun to cast a wider net for advice on how to engineer successful school turnarounds. The need for turnaround strategies that work is more timely than ever.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the list of schools identified to be in need of help grows longer by the year, making educators increasingly desperate for some solid research-based advice.

A recent count by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found that by the end of the 2005-06 school year, 1,200 U.S. schools had failed to meet the student-achievement targets set under the law for five years in a row. Another 800 schools fell short of their improvement goals for four straight years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. (“Turnarounds Central Issue Under NCLB”, June 20, 2007.)

Changes at the Top

Yet the research base on successful turnaround strategies in education is too new and too thin to be of much help to those schools, scholars say. Existing studies in education, they say, tend to focus on making incremental, rather than dramatic, improvements and ignore decades of time-tested studies documenting what worked for managers in other fields.

If education scholars had looked at the deeper body of research beyond their backyard, Mr. Murphy contends, they would have found that some of their own intervention prescriptions conflict with the advice emerging from the turnaround studies outside their field.

For his own review, which took three years, Mr. Murphy analyzed hundreds of case studies and empirical reports dating back to 1970. Most of those studies, he said, conclude that changing the leadership at the top of the organization is a critical ingredient for a successful turnaround.

Turnaround Tactics

With an eye toward turning around failing schools, education scholars are looking to research from various sectors of society for ideas on how organizations can reverse downward trajectories. Some common themes have emerged.

In a cross-sector research review, Public Impact found that leaders of successful turnarounds sought continuous improvement.

■ The U.S. Army operationalized that idea, the study found, by requiring soldiers to complete “after-action reviews” to get them used to thinking about how they could improve their work.

Dramatic change comes in an organization when leaders are free to act quickly, regardless of whether they get permission to act upfront or whether they apologize for it afterward, according to Public Impact.

■ Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston recovered from a disastrous 1996 merger, according to the report, after the turnaround leader persuaded the governing board to steer clear of day-to-day management decisions.

After reading hundreds of studies over three years, scholars Joseph F. Murphy and Coby V. Meyers concluded that most successful turnaround leaders forge a clear vision of the future.

■ The vision behind IBM Corp.’s dramatic transformation in the 1990s, they said, was the idea that the Armonk, N.Y.-based company could move from manufacturing computer hardware to providing computer services, solutions, and networks.

—Debra Viadero

“The thinking is that, if an organization has failed, whether the individual leaders are responsible for it or not, they were there, and they’re unlikely to turn it around or they would have done it already,” he said.

Yet turnaround studies in education tend to underemphasize that aspect of the change process, in Mr. Murphy’s view.

On that point, though, the Vanderbilt professor is likely to draw some argument from his colleagues. There’s more than one way to think about changing leadership in failing schools, said Daniel L. Duke, the research director for a 3-year-old, state-sponsored initiative at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville aimed at training cadres of “turnaround specialists” to work with struggling schools. (“In Struggling Schools, ‘Turnaround’ Leaders Off to Promising Start,” Dec. 7, 2005.)

Students in his program, which is jointly run by the university’s business and education schools, also read cases about successful organizational overhauls outside of education.

But, Mr. Duke added, “I’m talking about changing people within the organization and not just switching people.” He said program graduates have had as much success by retraining principals of low-performing schools as they have with replacing them.

By the same token, though, Mr. Murphy and other scholars warn against a complete change of staffing in schools, noting that such sweeping changes can exacerbate morale problems and rob the schools of individuals with institutional memory and practical knowledge of the system.

‘Begin With the Budget’

Mr. Murphy said his reading of the wider literature also suggests that school administrators need to spend more time upfront identifying where the problems and inefficiencies are in their organizations, rather than rushing out to find a school improvement model to adopt.

“Almost all other organizations begin with the budget and start identifying inefficiencies,” he said. “While you can argue that may not be applicable to schools, our argument is that you probably should start with the budget and figure out where current money can be reinvested to serve in the turnaround.”

Another common theme of turnaround studies, both inside and outside of education, is that it’s important to accomplish a few highly visible achievements in the first year, said Bryan C. Hassel, the co-director of Public Impact, an educational consulting firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

For a study led by his wife, Emily Ayscue Hassel, Mr. Hassel helped review 59 reports written since 2000 on successful turnarounds of schools, districts, hospitals, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Army, city governments, and agencies serving disabled children, among other organizations.

A case study of the New York Police Department’s two-year turnaround, for instance, showed that Mr. Bratton used an “early win” strategy by pushing to get bulletproof vests and more powerful weapons for officers and ordering darker, more authoritative-looking uniforms in his first week on the job as police commissioner.

In subsequent months, he reduced processing time for arrests from an average of 16 hours to one hour and marshaled officers to clamp down on “quality of life” misdemeanors—most famously by cracking down on the then-ubiquitous “squeegee pests” who washed the windshields of cars stopped in traffic and then demanded payment for their efforts.

“You need early, tangible wins to build confidence,” Mr. Hassel said. “Otherwise, the demoralization continues.”

Plan Around Data

In their reviews, the Hassels and Mr. Murphy also found that successful organizational overhauls tended, in some fashion, to redirect workers to focus on or identify with their “customers.”

“One of the reasons that organizations fail consistently is that there’s a disconnect from customers,” Mr. Murphy said. “That’s one of the things you see less of in education.”

Across the spectrum, though, successful leaders in schools, police agencies, hospitals, and other organizations also brought about dramatic change by measuring and reporting progress and crafting an action plan based on the data they collect, according to experts.

One example from the broader body of work: Commissioner Bratton, a student himself of the literature on organizational management, brought in a sophisticated data-management system called Compstat that displayed maps and charts showing where crimes occurred and police-response patterns.

Using the system, the agency’s 76 precinct commanders presented data on their precincts’ progress at semiweekly meetings with top department officials.

Mr. Bratton’s story is famous in part because his changes appeared to produce dramatic, and widely reported, improvements. Between 1993 and 1995, a time when other major U.S. cities saw crime rates rise, incidences of crime in New York dropped by nearly 26 percent.

Stacey M. Childress, a lecturer in general management at the Harvard Business School, said she uses the NYPD case study with students in the Public Education Leadership Project, a 4-year-old program jointly run by Harvard’s business school and its graduate school of education.

Once they identify a successful strategy in the general literature, though, her students also examine the ways in which schools and districts have successfully adopted and adapted the same idea. After reading about the Compstat system, for instance, her students looked at case studies describing how schools in Montgomery County, Md., and Memphis, Tenn., used student-achievement data to improve schooling.

“Having a distillation of things that seem to work across multiple sectors is a great addition to the field,” she said. “But you need to take one more step and take the ideas you’ve distilled and test those on the ground in public education to see whether or not they do adapt to different contexts.”

“My guess,” she added, “is that many would.”

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Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2007 edition of Education Week as Scholars Reaching Outside Education For School Fixes


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