School & District Management

‘Turnaround’ Work Needs Rethinking, New Report Says

By Catherine Gewertz — November 12, 2007 6 min read
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State, district, and school leaders must link arms to create a different model for turning around the worst-performing schools, including a “protected space” free from many traditional rules, a new report contends.

The report, scheduled for release this week by Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston-based research and advocacy group, envisions a broad-based and highly cooperative system of rapid school improvement. States and districts would form small, specialized units to supervise and coordinate the work of locally based “lead” turnaround specialists, who would partner with a range of providers to supply an integrated array of services to schools.

Mass Insight intends the report to serve as a flexible framework for how states and districts can reverse the downward slide of their worst schools within a couple of years. Thousands of low-performing schools are likely to face the most severe consequences under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in the next few years. In this new model, states and districts would play key roles as facilitators, clearing away regulations or conditions that could hamper the work, and building crucial capacity and support for it.

Districts, for instance, could forge agreements with local teachers’ unions giving principals charter-like authority over their budgets, hiring, and other operations. States would provide incentives to be part of the turnaround work, seek out and develop a corps of skilled turnaround experts, and make sure money was allotted to make the work possible. The specialized units would need enough freedom and authority to respond swiftly to schools’ needs.

Pilot Tests?

To put their ideas into action, Mass Insight executives are talking with state school boards in Illinois and Washington state to gauge their interest in piloting versions of the model. They are also enlisting a management-consulting company to work with New York City, Chicago, and several other urban districts to gauge the market’s readiness to supply the skilled turnaround help necessary to the model’s success. Mass Insight also plans to establish a national research center to build a storehouse of knowledge about school turnaround.

The report and subsequent planning work were underwritten by grants from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also supports Education Week’s annual report on high school graduation rates.

NEW: A Comprehensive Turnaround Framework

A proposal suggests states and districts team up with specialists to revive low-performing schools.


OLD: A Fragmented, School-by-School Approach


SOURCES: Mass Insight; Education Week

The report’s recommendations are based on practices shared by high-poverty, high-performing schools, such as their collaborative, student-focused cultures, and lessons from a handful of districts that have tried pieces of the approach. Those include New York City, which has extended additional authority to all of its principals in exchange for greater accountability, and Miami-Dade County, Fla., which administers intensive help to 39 of its lowest-performing schools in a “zone” with its own oversight unit. (“Miami ‘Zone’ Gives Schools Intensive Help,” Oct. 17, 2007.)

William Guenther, Mass Insight’s president and founder, said in a recent interview that the traditional approach to helping the most troubled schools is too fragmented and “timid” to be effective or sustainable. Too often, he said, schools juggle pieces of solutions imposed by states and districts, such as a whole-school reform model, or new school leadership, that do not fully address their problems.

State turnaround initiatives must deal not only with the programs and people at the schools—the elements most commonly installed by intervening states and districts—but also the conditions in which they operate, Mr. Guenther said. Those include granting schools sufficient authority to decide budget, program, and staffing issues, and instituting strong incentives to join a turnaround effort, such as the desirability of getting the extra help and the entrepreneurial opportunities a turnaround can offer.

‘Three C’s’

The right conditions are one of the “three C’s” Mass Insight considers necessary to real change. The other two are capacity (building the school’s and community partners’ skills to improve, securing the resources to do it) and clusters (forming groups of schools that collaborate for improvement, with state and district guidance). How loosely or tightly states and districts manage each aspect of change is up to them, Mr. Guenther said.

“We don’t have enough superheroes to get this work done.

We have to have a system,” he said. “It’s a mistake to get caught up in an ideological debate about whether you have to free everyone up, or have a centralized direction. You need a balance of both.”

Some states and districts already deploy teams or coaches to help struggling schools, but their roles are not the far-reaching, coordinating roles envisioned for the “lead turnaround partners” in Mass Insight’s framework. Virginia, for instance, has a special program to train turnaround specialists for lagging schools, but they serve only as principals. (“In Struggling Schools, ‘Turnaround’ Leaders Off to Promising Start,” Dec. 7, 2005.)

Mass Insight officials acknowledge that too few people and groups have enough expertise in K-12 school turnarounds to support the crucial state-district partnerships necessary for the 1,000-plus schools already subject to restructuring under the No Child Left Behind law, let alone the 4,000 more that are expected to join them by 2010.

But Andrew Calkins, the group’s senior vice president, said it is exactly that mounting need that will cause expansion in the marketplace for those skills.

“The urgency we have now has created the need to fuel demand and then supply for this market base,” he said.

Some experts in the field, though, see the lack of turnaround expertise as a potentially significant stumbling block in the model’s framework.

“What we have is the beginnings of development of that capacity, but we’re not there yet,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization that tracks how schools are responding to the nearly 6-year-old federal law.

He called the framework a “useful tool” in encouraging schools, districts, and states to view one another as indispensable parts of one integrated solution. But cultures that differ from state to state, and district to district, will make large-scale application of the framework challenging, he said, as will resistance to waiving entrenched rules and practices.

“Some things are good in the abstract, but hard to do in reality,” he said.

Lew Smith, an associate professor of education at Fordham University in New York City who writes about school leadership and partners with schools that are redesigning, said the Mass Insight model deserves points for advocating “protected spaces,” free of bureaucratic constraints, and for defining turnaround expertise as a specialized discipline, distinct from general school improvement efforts.

But he said it doesn’t adequately address what must be done to lead a school’s staff to embrace change, and the role the principal must play.

“There is very little attention paid to how you move people from point A to point B,” Mr. Smith said. “Leaders have to understand human dynamics, why people don’t want to change, and take steps to widen that comfort zone. You’re going to need ongoing professional development for teachers and principals.”

Lois Adams-Rodgers, one of the deputy executive directors of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, which intends to distribute copies of the report to all its members, said the framework can help states reconceptualize their roles.

“You can’t create a blitzkrieg and send in a team for six months like, ‘By golly, they’ll tell those folks what to do.’ There is no sustainability there,” she said. “This [report] helps us think about transforming the system in ways that can be sustained. It’s a much different conversation, among more people. That’s good, because there truly is no silver bullet.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Turnaround’ Work Needs Rethinking, New Report Says


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