The Turnaround Challenge: How to Help Low-Performing Schools

Andew Calkins, Joseph F. Murphy and Donald Feinstein took questions on what needs to be done to help chronically low-performing schools turn themselves around.

January 22, 2008

The Turnaround Challenge: How to Help Low-Performing Schools

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s online chat about what needs to be done to help chronically low-performing schools turn themselves around. We have many very good questions waiting to be answered. So let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Linda Frederick, Teacher, Central Franklin Elementary:

What are the roles and responsibilities of school leadership in turning low-performing schools around? What strategies do you suggest for implementing these roles and acting on these responsibilities?

Donald Feinstein:

School leadership helps articulate the vision and mission of the new reinvented school. School leaders help set the tone and climate. School leadership supports and facilitates teaching and learning. School leaders facilitate the acquisition of needed classroom resources. School leaders contributes to creating positive school community relations. They engage parents and broader community in conversations which inform decision making. Leaders help bring needed professional development to their faculty. School leaders build professional learning communities predicated on continuous improvement. School leaders need to have the autonomy to control their reality but also have to be held accountable for overall school performance and student outcomes. Initially in turn around situations, school leaders need to demonstrate authenticity and credibility with their school community, by securing a few tangible quick improvements, a true openness to engagement and a commitment to putting the need of children first.

Question from Bill Blokker,Ed.D., Senior Consultant, Literacy First Comprehensive Reading Reform Process:

If a school is chronically underperforming in reading, writing and math in all subgroups, where should the turnaround begin?

Andew Calkins:

You’ve described exactly the kinds of schools we discuss in our report. These are schools with chronic, significant underperformance across multiple curriculum areas and over a number of years. By every definition, they are failing their students. And that, frankly, is where turnaround begins -- with strong, broad consensus that what’s required is not just incremental tinkering, but really a redesign of the whole approach at that school. Turnaround begins with a planning process, organized by the school’s district and a lead turnaround partner, and with the granting of operating flexibility at that school so that choices can be made that are driven by the school’s mission, not by contractual or compliance-mandated requirement. A new set of strategies that take fully into account the needs of the students in that school has to be developed and put in place. Some of that work can be imported from research (like ours) into high-performance, high-poverty schools, and some of it should be developed by the school’s leadership team in accordance with its specific circumstances. Effective school leadership is absolutely essential, and those school leaders need to understand the dynamics of turnaround -- that this is different work than the slower, steady process of school improvement. Some will argue, in fact, that truly dysfunctional schools should be closed and replaced, and that that is the quickest way to a new culture that supports higher expectations (and provides deeper levels of support) for students. That may well be the case. But it’s not enough to simply close a building and reopen it under the same model of teaching and learning that had been there before. I think you’d be interested to read our analysis of high-performing, high-poverty schools in The Turnaround Challenge, which you can find at

Question from Mary Ellen Rocha, Administrative Intern, T.L. Pink Elementary:

How do you motivate these students to get beyond their basic needs and see the importance of an education?

Joseph F. Murphy:

mary ellen tough question i`d focus on building a personalized env so all kids are known and cared for to start---without that motivation is a bit empty

Comment from Ram Bhatia, Sub.Teacher, CPS:

For low performing schools or students not performing well, I would strongly suggest: to keep the schools open for them till 5:30pm, introduce Saturday as a mandatory working day. This will give students and their parents a clear signal that we mean business. For students who are disturbing in the classroom make them go through a week of “Boot Camp” training. Thanks, Good Luck. Mr.'B’

Question from SUE GIVENS, sp.ed. teacher, OKCPS:

Without parent support at home, i have found it difficult to engage interest in achievement. Parents will not take part in child’s educational needs. Do you think there should be some accountability for parents?

Donald Feinstein:

Ideally, all parents should take an interest and be involved in their child’s education. Research has indicated a positive relationship between student achievement and parent involvement. When parents are not supporting their children the way they should, schools should not use this unfortunate situation as an excuse or lessen their efforts to educate the child. Most parents want what is best for the child even though some may not know how to get it. School’s must strive to connect with all parents, create opportunities for parents to want to come to school and send a message that “the first teacher” is important to us. As much as we would like some accountability for parents, we know that many times effective teachers will go the extra mile inspite of difficulties, including apathetic parents.

Question from Dr. John Derby, Asst Supt, Standing Rock Community Schools:

How can our Native American reservation schools expect to make AYP when approximately 1/4 of their students are special education and another 1/4 are at-risk due to socio-economic and related conditions?

Andew Calkins:

You’re asking the right question. AYP is a tool that has usefulness only if the data it (and the tests on which it is based) generates is acted upon. How can these and other highly challenged students make achievement gains so that their schools meet AYP goals? -- Only through a comprehensive response that gives these schools the supports and capacity they need, and that builds on the successful practices described in our research on HPHP schools (High-performing, high-poverty). To me, a critical strategy of the whole standards movement is confronting all of us -- but especially policymakers -- with hard data that puts the hard questions right in front of us. We now know exactly how far behind students like these are slipping. We also know more today than we ever have before about what could help those students. Now the question is: will we have the public and political will to put these supports and strategies in place?

Question from JACQUELINE SIMMONS, substitute teacher, Grand Canyon University M.ED student:

How do we bridge the achievement gap between non-children of color and children of color?

Andew Calkins:

See my answer to a previous question. Our report, The Turnaround Challenge, describes schools that are accomplishing that goal -- they’re bridging the achievement gap. There’s a great book, out last year, that describes these kinds of schools in greater detail. (It’s called “It’s Being Done,” by Karin Chenoweth, Harvard University Press.) At the ground level, these schools practice what we call the “Readiness” approach, meaning they focus on helping students’ readiness to learn, teachers’ readiness to teach, and they do all of this in creative ways because they have the readiness (and authority) to act. They actively meet students more than halfway and focus on what they’re learning, rather than simply serving up a sort of cafeteria-line of curricula that doesn’t take students’ needs into account. The achievement gap is so prevalent, it’s clear that we can’t solve it with tinkering around the edges of reform. In order to scale up the practices of schools like these, we need more proactive reforms that truly change the ways urban schools operate. New York City and Chicago are examples of two districts that are experimenting with more dramatic, transformational kinds of reform -- changing operating conditions, creating better connections between students and adults, placing more authority in the hands of school leadership teams, working much more actively with partner organizations to help run their schools. Those are the kinds of directions we believe we should go.

Question from JACQUELINE SIMMONS, substitute teacher, Grand Canyon University M.ED student:

How can administrators, teachers, students and parents work together to turn their school around?

Donald Feinstein:

All stakeholders must work in a collaborative collegial manner. It requires everyone involved to build positive interpersonal relationships. School personnel must work as a team building relational trust. Teachers must work diligently to connect with both students and parents alike. When everyone is on the same page working towards the same goals, a powerful educational synergy can take place. Within a positive school climate, accelerated achievement can take place.

Question from Joseph Beckmann, Consultant, several community agency education programs:

We have known since the era of the Bureau of Education Personnel Development in the 1960’s that partnerships are difficult, time consuming, but the most reliable means of generating substantial and sustained change. We have also known that such partnerships are most successful when they involve colleges or universities, schools, and community groups in approximate parity. Such coalitions effect parent mobility no less than their children, but are very difficult to engineer since schools particularly are so bureaucratic and inward looking. What techniques have “the turnaround challenge” discovered, and with what kinds of history - in what state or federal initiatives, targeting ELL, SPED, early childhood, college prep, vocations, or what range of educational specialties, and at what level of funding from public or private sources?

Andew Calkins:

Your question is absolutely on point. School partnerships with universities, community groups and other organizations have historically been afflicted with what former Boston superintendent Tom Payzant used to call “projectitis” -- a focus on project-work instead of on comprehensive strategies that involve partners and contractors rationally. The result is all too familiar to teachers working in the schools (and to parents and students), who see all kinds of projects and partners whizzing about with not much being done to connect and integrate them. The contribution of our initial report, The Turnaround Challenge, on this issue is to suggest two things: that failing schools represent a prime opportunity to get this dynamic right (because there’s strong consensus for major change); and that the way to do it is to create a new kind of partnership, one that calls for a lead turnaround partner that can do the work of integrating all of the other providers. We are looking into the kinds of questions you suggest in a followup project underway at present, that’s designed to operationalize the findings of Turnaround Challenge. Later this year, Mass Insight Education & Research Institute will be releasing a series of much shorter reports and among them will be a close examination of what this new partnership model might look like -- and how we can significantly expand the available resource base of these turnaround partners. If this model is to work, all of the partners you point at (universities, CBOs, schools, parent organizations) and others (social service agencies, especially) will have a role to play. But they’ll be organized to support a coherent turnaround strategy for a cluster of under-performing schools.

Question from Bill Blokker,Ed.D., Senior Consultant, Literacy First Comprehensive Reading Reform Process:

Please react to this statement. “Turnaround is not possible until the culture in the school district requires these two requisites. 1. Principals who establish student achievement in reading, writing and math as the number one priority. 2. Principals who build the instructional capacity of the teachers to ensure all are capable of providing differentiated instruction at each student’s zone of proximal development.”

Joseph F. Murphy:

bill 1 sounds right 2 yes and no---it gets a bit over the top if you are talking about a different individual paln for each child

Question from mary p esposito, Reading First Coach, Elementary School, Brooklyn, NY:

All of us are aware of the impact leadership has in developing a culture of learning in our schools. How or what approaches do you think need to be taken to enlighten our present leadership to take on more of a facilitator and motivator of learning rather than the “top down” leadership role (do as I say or get a letter in your file) that is still present in many of schools today?

Donald Feinstein:

There is no “one best way” to lead. Different leaders bring their unique style to the job, which is fine. However, to create a school climate where teachers can thrive, we have found that distributing leadership responsibility among administrators and teachers is most effective. This doesn’t just happen on its own; school districts have to provide leaders with the training and supports needed to create these environments, and teachers have to be provided the resources (time being chief among them) to step into these roles.

Question from Helen Jackson,ME student,Walden Univ.:

we are studying the curriculum and I’m asking if you think that is the real problem in Low -Performing schools?

Andew Calkins:

Is the THE real problem? No, I don’t. But I don’t think, either, that there is such a thing as a single silver-bullet problem that an equally silver-bullet solution could cure, and then all of the other problems would be solved. Yes -- good curriculum that is well-aligned to your state’s standards and matched with the needs of your students is very important. But on a relative scale, it’s the capacity of the teachers to teach any curriculum well that seems more important. And it’s the approach of the school in focusing on whether the students are in fact learning any of the curriculum that may be most important of all. A school that is approaching standards-based education well is one that focuses primarily on what students are learning, more so than on what teachers are teaching. If you are rigorous about addressing the first, your inquiry into choosing the right curricula will be much better informed.

Question from Randolph B. Muhammad, Teacher, James Martin Middle School, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

What is “The Turnaround Challenge” position on school discipline and parental engagement regarding instructional learning environment?

Donald Feinstein:

The entire framework offers new ways to consider how to engage parents and provide a safe, nurturing learning environment, though specifically it is addressed in the Readiness to Learn segment. I don’t find school-level strategies in the report that suggest one type of discipline system is better than another, but it’s clear that a Turnaround School has to have a laser-like focus on safety and a positive school climate.

Question from Robert Walser, instructor, Hoffman Estates High School:

Why is all of the pressure being placed on schools? Why is the responsibility not shared by students and parents? Why can’t schools give exit test each year (NCLB) test. If the student does not make the grade, they are held back. Or give an entrance test to transfer students. Schools that recieve students from other district that don’t make the grade can charge the previous district/parents for the cost of bringing the student up to speed. Forget the soft step of self esteem. The kids are not ready to take the next step. When they get to high school they are 3-6 grades behind and graduate without being ready for the real world.

Joseph F. Murphy:

robert 1---there is more than enough blame to go around---and much of it rest outside the school----society, neighborhoods, families 2--key issue for us is to work on the part that is ours-- ie under our control

Question from Michele Greenberg, School Instructional Coach, Arlington Elementary:

What has the two-year study shown to be the single most important factor in turning around high-performing, high-poverty schools?

Andew Calkins:

I wish I could answer that question, but the data aren’t there to support it. We have a tendency to assume that there must be a single most important factor, when the solutions here are all complex and inter-dependent. Ask any of the leaders at high-performing, high-poverty schools that question and they’ll say, “it’s not any one thing.” (As one of them said to us, “it’s not doing one important thing well. It’s doing 100 small things well.”) All of that said... school turnaround is not possible in the absence of strong leadership -- usually not just a single heroic person, but a team that gathers around a common approach and a commitment and enables the 100 small things to happen. Our report argues that the presence of a high-caliber leadership team is in itself important but not sufficient; it must have the authority to act (for instance, to shape the hiring and allocation of teachers within the building), it must have various supports to enable the turnaround plan to work (e.g., extra time both for student learning and for teacher planning), and its approach must take fully into account not just their students’ learning needs but the whole host of other social factors that present such huge challenges in their lives. So: no single most important factors, but a set of essentials without which success will not be reached and sustained.

Question from Debbie Kohuth, Professional Development, St. Lucie County Schools:

In your opinion and from your studies, do parent involvement, teacher expectations of student ability, teacher work ethic, and/or teacher experience have the greater impact on student achievement? Or are these variables quite interlaced? We have avery difficult time retaining tecahers at our low-performing schools, high-poverty schools, so knowing we cannot change the socio-economic status of the students and their families, how can we impact achievement and enhance the morale of teachers and students? (We are in our second year of sharing Ruby Paynes’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty so that teachers have insight into behaviors and responses of students and their parents, while also giving them some instructional structures that will support learning.)

Andew Calkins:

It sounds as though you are on a good track, with your reference to helping your teachers better understand the lives and needs of their students. The answer to your first question can’t be to choose just one of those factors, as they all deeply affect student outcomes and they are to a strong degree inter-related. The turnaround framework we propose in our report is designed to position high-poverty, high-challenge schools as workplaces where good teachers actively want to go, because they have moved from the back rows of education reform to the front lines. These are schools where there should be no argument about the need for major change. We’re simply not taking the students in these schools where they need to go, in order to be ready for college or employment and informed citizenship. If turnaround schools can become our most cutting-edge models of new approaches (as the high-performing high-poverty schools are, that we document in our report), then they’ll have a chance to build the school culture needed to really transform the lives of the students they serve.

Question from julie esl teacher:

Any fresh ideas on how to get parents involved in schools with high poverty rates

Donald Feinstein:

We’ve had some great success with several ideas. First, before the school year begins, we have community picnics to build relationships and offer a fun way for parents, teachers, and students to interact. During the school year we do open houses, family reading and math nights, multi-cultural festivals, and invite parents to attend school events such as awards assemblies. We also survey parents twice a year to assess what’s working and what can be improved at the school. Overall, though, we’ve found that the most important piece is having a leadership team that embraces parents as a child’s first teacher and welcomes them into the school with open lines of communication and a true partnership in the education of students.

Question from Martin Weiss (writing about readiing):

Since neither Phonics First nor Whole Language Works (70 percent of high school seniors are Basic or worse readers), is there anything else?

Joseph F. Murphy:

martin phonics works just fine early on and as the foundation of a balanced program not so hot after kids are behind in the intermediate grades

Question from Dr. Gaye Lang, TEA, Dir. of Turnaround Prgm.:

What models have you seen, at the state level, that foster sustainability for correcting low-performing schools and continuing the improvement process toward excellence?

Joseph F. Murphy:

gaye none

Question from Joellen Killion, Deputy Executive Director, National Staff Development Council:

Who is responsible for engaging educators in the kind of professional learning that promotes the “turnaround?”

Donald Feinstein:

It takes a village! It is not an overstatement to say that EVERYONE is responsible for continuous improvement. It starts with the teacher and his/her work in the classroom, and it spreads out from there -- up to the school leadership and management support of the district, and out to the parents and community.

Question from Jean Mitchell, Associate Professor in Teacher Education, California State University Monterey Bay:

Many high-poverty schools (and systems) have very rapid turnover in personnel (teachers, administrators, staff). It can be as high as 50% turnover in teachers every year; even relatively successful principals may leave after only one or two years. How does your model address overcoming this turbulence factor?

Andew Calkins:

It’s a big problem, you’re right. It’s both a symptom of the degree of the problem, and a contributor to the problem itself. Our model suggests that turnaround schools need to gathered in turnaround zones that provide them with the operating flexibility, resources, and capacity supports (in part through deeply embedded lead turnaround partners)they need to become, in effect, clubs that people actively want to join. These schools will never succeed until they become schools that good teachers want to work in. They will never draw teachers who are simply more comfortable working in suburban environments. But they (and our whole education system) need to figure out ways to draw more higher-capacity people, and the way to do it is to make them -- counter-intuitively -- into our most advanced, cutting-edge examples of reform. How could that ever happen? We suggest that chronically underperforming schools are in fact the most plausible access point for the kinds of major reform that really should be applied across the public education system. They’re plausible in that way because their track records are literally indefensible. It’s clear that we need to do things very differently in those schools. The high-performing, high-poverty schools we studied in our report have not been able to eliminate turbulence in their schools; their students’ lives are turbulent, and so are their neighborhoods and social mobility patterns and so on. But they have been able to create very strong school cultures that have attracted and kept strong teachers. It’s demanding work, and we may need to understand that we have moved forever (at least in these schools) from the model where the preponderance of a school’s faculty stays intact across a couple of decades. But if the school’s culture is strong enough, it can keep attracting new teachers who are drawn to its mission and success rate with challenged kids, and keep them there long enough to become active culture-builders for the new teachers who will follow them.

Question from Lee Nunery, Consultant, PlusUltre LLC:

In Philadelphia, 70 schools are in the Corrective Action II phase. How do you determine when to close vs. to save a low-performing school?

Joseph F. Murphy:

lee tough one pal i really do not know of a guideline that is generalizable

Question from Jean Mitchell, Associate Professor in Teacher Education, California State University Monterey Bay:

Much of your report addresses motivation, but motivation is not enough. All teachers in my experience) start out deeply committed to their students’ success. One of the primay reasons some lose this commitment is they don’t know how to achieve it--what they know, and what they are taught to do, doesn’t work (especially in math, my area of expertise). How does your turnaround model address this (often collective) “knowledge gap”?

Andew Calkins:

You’ve pointed at possibly the biggest challenge facing all of public education today -- the knowledge and capacity gap among teachers (including new teachers, coming out of education schools) about how to reach highly challenged students effectively. Our report doesn’t take on that challenge directly. There’s a lot of discussion about teacher preparation programs, recruitment, staff development, and the whole nature of the teaching profession elsewhere. But we do address it partially in our construct of the “turnaround zone.” These zones are essentially designed to be experiments in the most ideal space possible for effective high-poverty education. That means a whole host of supports, resources, flexibilities, and internal and external capacities. The zones will be effective only if the schools within them, working closely with the turnaround partner managing the network, can provide to their teachers the time, guidance, and supports they need to become effective in these environments. We’re basically saying: we know (all too well) what will not work in these schools. We have more than enough data on that. What we need are some initiatives that use the urgency of these underperforming schools to create the possibility of real success at scale. We need some proof points: that these kinds of strategies, operating without contractual and compliance-driven obstacles and with the necessary amount of resources and supports and management capacity, can actually close the achievement gap. You’re right -- initial commitment isn’t the issue, it’s providing the work environment that allows that initial mission-driven commitment on the part of most teachers to be converted into practical classroom skill. Right now, failing schools do not provide that environment -- far from it. But schools that become part of turnaround zones that do help transform school culture and that do provide supportive work environments have a chance to give those teachers what they need.

Question from Jamie Prinsen, Special Education Teacher, Riverside Middle School, Grand Rapids Public Schools:

I teach 7th/8th grade self contained Cognitively Imapaired classroom. My district is telling me to teach grade level curriculum. How is this benificial for my students when they do not have the prerequisit skills needed? I have been told that they have to take the MEAP so they have to be taught grade level curr. How can I meet the students needs and do what I am being asked?

Donald Feinstein:

We have been the most successful when our teachers meet the students where they are -- while maintaining a clear eye on the ultimate goal of getting all students to grade level, and beyond. This requires additional time on task and new strategies for helping students learn the content and skills asked of them. There is a fine line between working with a student at his/her instructional level versus his/her frustration level. Finding that balance requires a collaborative effort among classroom teachers, school level administrators, and parents.

Question from Jean Mitchell, Associate Professor in Teacher Education, California State University Monterey Bay:

Scaling up and sustainability, for any education reform, mean that whatever it takes has to be doable by ordinary people on an ongoing basis. There just aren’t enough extraordinary people to go around, to say nothing about burnout risks associated with extraordinary effort requirements. What evidence or basis for belief do you have that turnaround can be implemented--and then sustained--by us ordinary folks?

Joseph F. Murphy:

agreed--the saints and martyrs can not carry the freight all we have are cases of ordinary schools doing the work--but these are not all that impressive when you dig into them

Question from Dr. Mary Cross, SES, MSDE:

Nationally, what role has Supplemental Educattional Services played in turning around schools, or is it too early in the development of this program to tell? What elements of SES seem to hold promise?

Andew Calkins:

Interesting question. SES has played little role in turnaround around whole schools, I would say, but it does offer some constructive lessons for the ways we should approach school turnaround. SES was the federal government’s response to the presence of failing students -- individual kids who were being held to standards and expectations and clearly were not getting what they needed from their schools. I am not deeply familiar with the research here, but anecdotally it seems clear that the infusion of federal funds prompted a fast response from national providers, schools, and districts that may not have fulfilled the intentions of the original policy. When and if the federal government decides to invest a lot more money in helping individual failing schools, also now being held accountable, the question will be: how can the market response and the schools’ and districts’ and states’ response be more measured, thoughtful, comprehensive, and effective? That’s in part what the policy framework included in our Turnaround Challenge report is intended to do: create a plausible framework that would include all of the supports, resources, and strategies that we believe the research indicates schools need in order to turn around.

Question from Eula Page, Media Specialist, Lake View Middle School:

Does single gender classrooms improve acedemic achievement?

Joseph F. Murphy:

eula mixed research on this in general though " structural” changes like this do not predict performance---it is what happens to the kids

Question from Jean Mitchell, Associate Professor in Teacher Education, California State University Monterey Bay:

In HPHP schools, “Students feel secure and inspired to learn”. Adults too need to feel secure if they are to step outside the box of established, habitual practice, and especially if they are to “buy in” to policy changes, rather than “comply” with them. How do/can we establish a system in which teachers in general feel safe in trying new things for the benefit of their students?

Donald Feinstein:

We have found that the key is to build a professional learning community at the school where teachers are provided the resources, respect, and responsibility to shape their instructional program -- side by side with their colleagues (horizontally and vertically). School administrators have to be trained on how to build these PLCs, how to nurture them, and how to hold them accountable. Similarly, district-level administrators must be organized to support these efforts of school-based leaders. New ideas must of course be predicated on proven best practices. Ultimately, our goal has been to establish expectations at each of our schools that encourages teacher teams to engage in “action research” that will make a difference in their work with children.

Question from Dianne D.Graham, Teacher, Milwaukee K-8:

How can educators address the dynamics of chronic behavior in the classroom? Mrs. Graham

Joseph F. Murphy:

dianne do you mean behavior problems? you need all members of the school to decide the answer to this and to follow what you decide religiously--and hold each other`s feet to the fire----collective accountability

Question from Kelvin Hart Vice Principal Memphis City School,:

What factors were involved in transforming a low performing school into a high performing school? How did you maintain that high performing status each year?

Andew Calkins:

There are not many models to look at here -- not of schools (or groups of schools, even better) that have emerged from chronic underperformance to become better-than-average performers and can show that they can sustain that record. At the high school level, particularly, the research base is exceedingly thin. But the literature, our own research, and our analysis of high-performing high-poverty schools tells us that they embody the three dimensions of the “readiness” model we created for the report. That means: 1. They focus on helping their students be ready to learn, which is a huge dimension of the work that goes on in effective high-poverty schools. 2. They tune their instructional strategies around that knowledge of what their students need, enabling their teachers to be “ready to teach” effectively for those students. 3. They are free to make mission-driven decisions that support their educational strategies because they have sufficient “readiness to act.” They are freed from the contractual and bureaucratic logjams that are obstacles to effective education in many schools, they have sufficient resources to be able to extend learning time and teacher planning time, and they can act quickly and entrepreneurially to marshall partners and integrate support systems effectively. More information on this can be found in our report, at

Question from Martin Jones Research Associate University of Trinidad and Tobago:

Academic achievement is often traded against authentic self concept issues for clients in successful struggling schools. How can measures to assess these outcomes be entertained in the dominant culture of quantifiable outcomes?

Joseph F. Murphy:

martin 1---you need to empasize both----academic and social learning 2---you need to find ways to measure the stuff you value

Question from Audley Smith School Leader Cincinnati Leadership Academy:

There is a student group in our schools that ranks lowest in academic achievement and highest in research and data reviews. Yet school leadership has had litte effect on enhancing the student (African American males)achievement. Is this population not worthy to be educate or have we give up on the majority of his group?

Donald Feinstein:

All children are of equal value. Poverty can undermine a child’s readiness to learn, and it can create tremendous obstacles for a student’s willingness to engage in the educational process. But good schools take on these challenges and work hard to have an impact in areas where they can. Positive role models, high expectations, and engaging curriculum are all part of the solution. Ultimately, a new world approach (as indicated in the Turnaround Challenge) is needed to reinvent schools and address the needs of all students.

Question from Gerhard Behrens, teacher currently on leave, Adams Elementary:

What role do character education programs such as LifeSkills or Positive Action play in successful turnarounds. How about school climate programs like Positive Behavioral Supports?

Joseph F. Murphy:

gerhard i do not know the first 2 specifically what matters is 1] personalized culture where all kids are well know and cared for and 2] a clear and consistently followed set of rules -----to the extent that thes programs help on these fronts they will be useful

Question from Vickie Carter-Blocker, teacher , Barnwell 45:

What can be done to make our school systems better and maintain accountability?

Donald Feinstein:

My experience as a public school educator for over 30 years leads me to believe that autonomy linked to accountability is the best strategy for system-wide improvements. Easier said than done, it’s still possible in today’s climate. With reports such as those now being published by Mass Insight, I am more optimistic than ever that true public school reform can occur.

Question from John Thompson, teacher, Centennial HH, Oklahoma City:

Isn’t your work a nearly complete turnaround from the curriculum-driven policies encouraged by NCLB? Applying “Best Practices” for improving performance in low poverty or magnet schools to turning around the toughest secondary schools is like requiring cardiologists to employ the methods of cancer specialists. Shouldn’t your analysis of the complex ecosystems of high poverty schools become the model for NCLBII?

Andew Calkins:

We would like to see that, yes -- our analysis informing public policy at the highest levels. But that would not mean a retreat from high expectations, represented by good learning standards, that are the heart of NCLB. It would mean a much more nuanced, comprehensive, and coherent response to the data that NCLB generates about where schools are falling short. NCLB’s usefulness has been to shine a spotlight (together with other measures, including NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA) on the state of K-12 achievement in this country. Its remedies for underachievement, by individual students and by failing schools, have clearly not proved effective. I don’t think we gain much by shooting the messenger that is the most important tool we have to spark more attention to these issues and more public investment in solutions. That said: NCLB’s remedies sure can use some modification, and we need to take a broader look at the response of too many states, districts and schools in essentially trying to “game” the system or focus way too much on test preparation at the expense of real skill-building. Our offices are in Massachusetts, which has done a good job of creating good standards, thoughtful and well-aligned tests, and fair but ambitious expectations, backed by the MCAS high school graduation requirement. Many schools here approach standards well. They’re not afraid of them, or of MCAS, and they don’t communicate that fear to students, but they teach skills that matter and trust that those skills will show up on the tests -- and they do. We would not argue to dismantle that system; it’s working. We would certainly argue, as you propose, for some major reworking of NCLB’s provisions for working with underperforming schools -- and in ways that take the complex ecosystem of high-poverty schools clearly into account.

Question from Susan Dolhi National Board Certified Teacher Los Angeles Unified:

I have thoroughly enjoyed this research and it resonates with my personal educational philosophy, great work! How do we get this document into the hands of those who will run with it? I have been part of reform efforts in my school and it is true that many of our strategies have failed, they continue to fail and our group is adopting even more that are known to fail. Where do talented educators go if they are the minority voices at the school site regarding the type of reform you speak of? I’m considered a renegade these days and I hold to many of your views!

Andew Calkins:

Well, it’s a pleasure to answer questions like this one! Thank you for posing it and we’re glad our research resonates with your own experience. The framework for tranformative change that we propose in the report won’t be embraced by everyone, everywhere. We are hoping that by this time next year, we and a number of national partners will be working in a small cohort of states and districts that are ready to fully commit to the framework. That means broad consensus from the most important stakeholders, including state, district, school, school board, and teacher leaders. In the short run, meaning the next several years, we hope these initiatives will demonstrate the necessity of approaching reform for high-challenge students in this comprehensive way, and the efficacy of focusing first on the most underperforming schools. Educators such as you, who are drawn to this kind of thinking, can come and join those efforts if you’re able to -- or try to re-create them in your own back yard. I sympathize with you... and I challenge you. Print out materials on our report from our website, distribute them to possible allies in your school/district, build your own team of revoluationaries, and see how far you can go! And stay in touch with us, either directly or through the website. We’ll let everyone know where we and our partners are working, and when that work begins.

Question from FGuert, BVRT, Math Teacher:

Teaching concepts to “fragile” students, while holding them accountable for material - how do you balance it? What do I have to do to get more from my students without burying them in “possible” failure?

Joseph F. Murphy:

kids who are well know ans cared for by adults are much less fragile---i`d start there and i`d search to find where they are so the next step can be managed

Question from Karen Humphrey, Program Administrator, CA Postsecondary Education Commission:

If the professional development seen in high-performing schools is not “the norm”, how would we assure that this kind of professional development would actually be part of a “turnaround” intervention? Beyond that, how could we make this kind of professional development, which is more and more demonstrated to lead to student success, “the norm” in all schools?

Donald Feinstein:

As you indicate, when “turning around” a school, you have the opportunity to create new norms and expectations for professional development that can result in powerful growth in student achievement. To take this growth system-wide poses a different kind of challenge. As the Mass Insight report suggests, districts and states must change the conditions so that schools have the flexibility to implement the kinds of programs you allude to. Mandates from above don’t often accomplish the desired results; but autonomies linked to accountability can.

Question from Maureen Kelleher, Education Writer/Consultant, Chicago:

My primary question is for Donald Feinstein. Sherman Elementary is now in year two of its turnaround: how many teachers from last year are still on the faculty, and what is your sense of how things are going this year in terms of school climate and student achievement?

Donald Feinstein:

The Sherman School of Excellence was our first turnaround school, and we are extremely proud of the progress Principal Allen and his team have made there over the past year and a half. From year one to year two, we had a few teachers who left for promotions (AP, Curriculum Director), a few who left because it wasn’t a good fit for them, and a few who were asked to leave. The vast majority of teachers remained, and they are now experienving the benefits of their first year’s efforts. Whereas in year one students were uncertain of how to respond to the high expectations, rigor, and support that the staff provided, they now embrace the learning environment. We invite you to come by and see first-hand how Sherman has truly transformed in the past two years.

Question from Jeanette Elam,Assistant Principal, Hephzibah High School:

How can a county or district neglect to update the technology and resources in some schools while other schools in the same county are rated as high performing?

Joseph F. Murphy:

je not sure i understand the question

Question from Tom Buffett, Managing Director of the Michigan Principals Fellowship, Michigan State University:

One key element of the Turnaround Challenge is flexibility over resources at all levels. As far as school-level resources, which are most important for a school leader to have control over? What accountability would you suggest for using these resources wisely?

Donald Feinstein:

In our opinion, the single most important piece to a successful school turnaround is the classroom teacher. Principals must have the authority to hire his/her teaching staff anew. In fact, we believe the principal must be able to make hiring decisions on every employee in the building, including support staff, cafeteria workers, custodial personnel, etc. Other areas are also significant: budget, curricular programs (including scheduling, assessment tools, etc.), facility renovations, and parent outreach efforts. But again, the most important element is the staff.

Question from Clark Rafford, Principal, Hodgdon High School:

What are some strategies we might employ to help change the lack of academic motivation in those students who really could care less about education?

Donald Feinstein:

Great question -- one that we face in Chicago as well. While your questions suggests a simplicity to the situation, we all know that the answers are deeply complex. In my work I have tried to focus efforts on those elements we can control: school design, community outreach, academic interventions, engaging curriculum, meaningful curricular enhancements, etc. At the root of all these is the importance of building a web of positive relationships: students to teachers, teachers to parents, parents to administrators, even students to students. Once the emotional connections are made, the intellectual connections -- such as, what does my future hold for me? -- can begin to take hold. While there are numerous technical responses to the issue of student motivation (ipod raffles seem to be the most popular these days), ultimately it requires an adaptive solution. I’ve found that relationship building is the most important piece of that puzzle.

Question from Tom Buffett, Managing Director, Michigan Principals Fellowship:

If one were to take the recommendations of the Turnaround Challenge and provide greater autonomy for school principals over resources (time, money, people), what would you hold them accountable on the to improved student achievement?

Joseph F. Murphy:

tom i would hold them acct for progress on the things at school that explain student achievement----time use, rigor of curr, deep connections with parents on the academic mission of the school, staff capacity to work, and so forth

Question from Marlene Darwin, Senior Research Analyst, American Institutes for Research:

What are realistic indicators of success in Turnaround Schools? For example,if you have a list of 100 turnaround schools, how would you select three schools to showcase to other educators as best examples of success?

Andew Calkins:

We’d suggest looking for signals that these schools have pursued strategies that are scale-able. That means they can articulate exactly what they did to turn their school around, with real specificity. Schools on your list of 100 that simply say “we have a great faculty,” or “Ms. Smith is a miracle-worker” don’t have a clear sense of exactly what they did -- and that’s what this kind of research effort is attempting to identify.

Question from Mark Williams, Board President, Austin Independent School District (Austin, TX):

With all the challenges that high-poverty, high school students face (economic - have to work to support themselves/their family; family - have to take care of siblings/elders/their own babies; resources - may not have access to computers, project materials, a quiet place to study; parents who are working or otherwise absent, or have limited education and English proficiency, and thus not able to supervise and assist their student/child with their homework, projects, test prep, etc; peer pressure - that it’s not cool to go to school, study, stay out of trouble, get involved in extracurricular activities other than sports; academic readiness - when a lot of our high school kids are already struggling, or are not strong or don’t have a real interest in certain subjects (for ex, math and science), and yet standards are rising are requirements that all kids take four years of math and science in high school are being mandated by state legislatures; families/communities have to work and aren’t involved in the school’s PTAs/campus advisory councils/other volunteer roles; how do we help those students stay interested, stay engaged, stay in school, catch up and graduate? I know it’s not all doom and gloom, and many students in high-poverty situations persevere and do amazing work. But it’s tougher, and our generally one size, one set of requirements for all kids school model doesn’t seem to work for enough kids, which triggers state accountability sanctions which seem to increase the challenges for high-poverty students, rather than to truly help them.

Donald Feinstein:

You outline challenges that we face in Chicago as well. And as you acknowledge, if there were easy answers we’d all be implementing them as we speak. I believe strongly that the Turnaround approach described by Mass Insight provides a framework for breaking the cycle of insufficiency and offers a fresh start approach to real reform. Schools must be re-organized to meet the needs of today’s youth. Districts must re-allocate resources to support new innovations and more personalized education plans. States must change the conditions to allow districts to have more autonomy -- while maintaining high levels of accountability. To combat the ills of poverty, some schools (high schools especially) have to become more flexible, more visionary, and more focused. While schools can accomplish this on their own, one by one, for systemic change to occur, districts and states must also align their work to the needs of high poverty students.

Question from Charlotte Koger, Title I Technical Assistance Project Manager, Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators:

What recommendations do you have for the key components/strategies to include in the development of a Statewide Systems of Support for High Priority Schools?

Andew Calkins:

In a nutshell, states should: 1. Define the work of turnaround (i.e., establish that the High Priority Schools need much more than marginal intervention. 2. Change the operating conditions in these schools, by eliminating barriers to reform that, for example, prevent principals and leadership teams from shaping who works in their building and how they are allocated. 3. Build capacity both internally (training strong principals statewide to do turnaround work) and externally (building the resource base of turnaround providers to lead the turnaround “zones”). 4. Cluster the schools together for both efficiency and effectiveness. 5. Create new structures at the state and district level that have similar operating flexibility and can bring on board the capacity required to manage this new kind of reform initiative effectively. All of this requires a sustained, broadly-supported consensus among state political, education, and business leaders that a) we must do something substantially different in these schools, and b) we must re-orient our systems, structures, and approaches in order to do it. There’s much more about all of this in our report. Thanks for the question!

Question from Frank J. Hagen, Adjunct Professor - Wilmington University:

It has been documented that the leadership component in a school has a significant impact on a school’s culture, climate and, ultimately, student achievement. Unfortunately, in many of the low performing schools, there is a distinct lack of visible leadership from the principal or teachers. Is it realistic to believe that sending a team of “experts” to change or rescue a low performing school will have more than a momentary impact on the school’s culture, climate and student achievement which will dissipate when the team leaves the school? What is truly needed to sustain the changes and institutionalize them into the fabric of the school’s culture for long-term improved student achievement?

Andew Calkins:

That’s a great question. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the problem with the “send-in-the-experts” approach. That has been the de facto approach in many states: hire some retired educators, given them a few days of training, call them experts and send them into failing schools for a day or two a week to provide management advice. That is not a turnaround strategy. To change the fabric of a school’s culture, as you correctly put it, we need a response that is far more comprehensive than that, and because these tend to be high-poverty, high-challenge schools, we in fact need to move to a substantially different approach. What works in affluent suburban schools will not work in urban schools where students present a completely different set of skills and needs and where the dynamics of poverty (constant migration is just one example) shape everything that happens in those schools. Our report suggests learning from the emerging set of higher-performing, high poverty schools that are showing that it’s possible to close the gap. I could give you a very long answer here, but will focus on just one thing: replacing the day-per-week “experts” with high-capacity organizations that are constructed specifically to work as deeply embedded partners in turnaround schools. These partner organizations would act as “systems integrators” with the school’s leadership team, aligning and integrating all of the various support systems necessary to effective high-poverty education. Would these lead turnaround partners disappear three or four or five years later, once the school has stabilized and the culture has been genuinely transformed? I don’t think so. The level of intensity of their work might diminish, but the work of reform never stops, students and teachers come and go, and the need for strong assistance from a partner and a network of schools addressing similar challenges will remain strong.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for this very informative chat. And a special thanks to our guests for taking time out of their busy schedules to participate in this discussion. This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted later today on

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