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Duncan’s Call for School Turnarounds Sparks Debate

By Catherine Gewertz — July 21, 2009 11 min read
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The U.S. secretary of education’s call to “turn around” the nation’s 5,000 worst-performing schools has found a warm welcome among educators and policymakers who see that focus as long overdue. But it has also sparked debate about how—and whether—such an enormous leadership and management challenge can be accomplished.

Arne Duncan is pressing for attention to chronically underperforming schools as one of four areas that states must address if they are to receive federal economic-stimulus aid. Those schools have failed to make academic progress year after year, the secretary said in a June speech, but “too many administrators are unwilling to close failing schools and create better options.”

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Duncan wrote in a Commentary that month in Education Week, school officials have not made dramatic changes in troubled schools but have “taken the path of least resistance.”

Now, Mr. Duncan is seeking to rally an army to overhaul learning in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools over five years. He’s calling on “turnaround specialists,” charter school groups, unions, school districts, and states to do their part.

Few dispute that bold action on low-performing schools has been lacking. But even with new political leadership and money, the job may require more of the field than it can deliver.

“I worry that we don’t have the capacity to do it, and I’ve worried about it for 10 years,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who is now a partner in the education advocacy and strategy group VA/R Partners, based in La Jolla, Calif. “But it’s time to take on this issue. We’d never solve this problem if we didn’t have a leader pushing on it.

“We didn’t know how to go to the moon when Kennedy put that out, either. This is a bigger challenge than that. This is our moonshot. And it’s not one moonshot, it’s thousands.”

Turnaround Strategies

In a June 22 speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined four basic ways to turn around low-performing schools. Since all assume a year of planning, Mr. Duncan urged educators to begin planning now for the first round of action in fall 2010.

1: The new principal and lead teachers recruit new teachers in the spring. The previous teachers must reapply for their jobs, but most don’t get rehired.

2: The school’s leadership and staff are replaced, and the school is handed over to a charter-management organization or for-profit education management organization.

3: Most of the school’s staff members remain, but major steps are taken to revamp school culture. Schools that take this approach must, at a minimum, establish a “rigorous” performance-evaluation system, along with more supports, training, and mentoring; strengthen curriculum and instruction; increase learning time; and give leadership teams more flexibility to make budgeting, staffing, and calendar decisions. Mr. Duncan warns that this approach can’t be used as a “dodge to avoid difficult but necessary choices.”

4: The school is closed, and students are enrolled in better schools.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Quick and Dramatic

The federal government is dangling a lot of money for school turnaround work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress at the urging of President Barack Obama in an effort to spur the nation’s economy, includes $3.5 billion for the Title I school improvement grant program. The current fiscal year’s budget includes $545 million specifically for low-performing schools, and the Obama administration has requested another $1.5 billion for that purpose in the fiscal 2010 budget.

Definitions of “school turnaround” vary. Some include closing schools or hiring new staff members; others don’t. Most definitions share the view, however, that what distinguishes a “turnaround” from “school improvement” efforts is that it delivers dramatic improvement within a few years.

The private sector, where the idea was born, itself has a mixed record on corporate turnarounds, according to Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

“Turnarounds can be a valuable tool for improving underperforming schools,” Mr. Hess said in an article he co-wrote for the American School Board Journal last year. “However, the hope that we can systematically turn around all troubled schools—or even a majority of them—is at odds with much of what we know from private-sector efforts.”

In a June 22 speech, Mr. Duncan outlined four basic ways to turn around low-performing schools, assuming one year of planning. He urged educators to begin planning now for the first round of school takeovers in the fall of 2010.

Under the first option, a new school leader recruits new teachers in the spring. The previous teachers must reapply for their jobs but most don’t get rehired. In the second version, the school’s staff and leadership are replaced, and the school is handed over to a charter management organization or for-profit education management organization.

In the third scenario, most of the school’s staff remains, but major steps are taken to revamp school culture. Schools that take this approach must, at a minimum, establish a “rigorous” performance evaluation system, along with more supports, training and mentoring; strengthen curriculum and instruction; increase learning time; and give leadership teams more flexibility to make budgeting, staffing, and calendar decisions. Mr. Duncan warned that this approach can’t be used as a “dodge to avoid difficult but necessary choices.”

The fourth option closes a school and enrolls students in a better school.

Role of Charter Schools

Mr. Duncan’s special plea for help from the charter school sector has raised questions about charter managers’ interest in, and capacity for, fixing low-performing schools.

Greg Richmond, the president of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, whose members oversee half the country’s 4,000-plus charter schools, said it would be “a challenge” to persuade high-quality charter-management organizations to step into the fray. Successful CMOs, he said, have excelled opening perhaps one new school, and exerting a lot of control over its design and replication. Such schools are publicly funded but largely independent in their operations.

“The reason why they are excellent schools is they are very thoughtful about what it is that makes them excellent, and they pick their opportunities carefully,” Mr. Richmond said. “Turnarounds are more reactive. The school system calls more of the shots. So a CMO is losing some of that control.”

Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington, argues that opening new schools is indeed a more promising turnaround strategy than revamping existing schools by the thousands.

“The good CMOs don’t start fresh by coincidence,” said Mr. Smarick, who was a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. “Starting fresh is how the good ones like KIPP and Amistad get it right,” he said, referring to the Knowledge Is Power Program, whose network includes more than 80 charter schools, and the Amistad Academies, three New Haven, Conn., charter schools.

But Jordan Meranus, who oversees turnaround work for the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, thinks school management organizations will respond favorably to Secretary Duncan’s pleas.

He points to the work of Mastery Charter Schools, which took over three floundering Philadelphia middle schools in the past few years and has produced gains of 40 percentage points on state tests there. Mastery, which is in NewSchools’ investment portfolio, is often cited by Mr. Duncan.

“These organizations are doing this, they are doing it multiple times, and they’re demonstrating that it’s possible,” Mr. Meranus said. “Combine that with school operators—scores of them—that will partner with reform-minded districts and states to take on this work, and we have the makings of a new cohort that can do this successfully.”

Two-by-Fours and Scalpels

Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a reform organization that works with 76 New York City schools, said that in 20 years of work, he has seen some schools that had to be shut down and started fresh elsewhere, and others that managed significant improvements while staying open.

“You need to have an accurate diagnosis of why each of those 5,000 schools are failing,” he said. “It’s crucial. Sometimes you need a two-by-four to get change. Other times you need a scalpel.”

He added that district operations must be reimagined alongside school operations if schools are to get the necessary freedom and support to flourish.

William E. Guenther, the president and founder of Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston-based group that designed a turnaround framework in 2007 and is helping states use its strategies, said the prospect of fixing 5,000 schools over five years doesn’t have to be daunting. That’s 1,000 schools, or an average of 20 schools per state, annually, he said.

“Are we really going to stand up in front of those kids and their parents and say we can’t take a shot at turning around 20 schools a year?” Mr. Guenther said.

As education leaders and managers mobilize to do turnaround work, they must avoid past mistakes, Mr. Guenther said. Instead of changing only the people or programs in low-performing schools, their operating conditions must also be changed, he said, including providing more autonomy for school leaders.

Mass Insight’s framework envisions “lead partners” that work—with a state-level unit’s support—to coordinate all programs and services within a school, and that are held accountable for student achievement.

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist who located the 2,000 high school “dropout factories” that Mr. Duncan repeatedly highlights as symbols of needed turnaround, said he believes the education field possesses the knowledge to make low-performing schools work well.

In struggling high schools, for instance, educators know what has to be done: Below-grade-level skills must be addressed, and a range of approaches can do that, Mr. Balfanz said. High-poverty schools have more inexperienced teachers, so special support must be provided to them, he said. And, he said, effective approaches for combating student disengagement and truancy, and providing tutoring and social supports, are all out there.

Still, he said, the knowledge base for all those efforts is not “codified, easily accessible, and packaged for broad consumption.”

“We have a knowledge base about what works and what doesn’t, and the conditions under which it works,” Mr. Balfanz said. “We need to draw on that. The challenge is getting the right strategy in the right place, and getting the know-how to more people.”

‘Top to Bottom’

In Hartford, Conn., one of the school districts singled out by Secretary Duncan for success in turning around low-performing schools, leaders have found that it requires a new school principal and staff members, more school-level autonomy, and a year of planning that yields a complete redesign of a school’s operations.

“You can’t just change a couple things in silos, like a new principal or staff. You literally have to redesign a school from top to bottom, specifying every detail, so everyone there knows what they are committing to,” said Steven J. Adamowski, the superintendent of the 25,000-student district, which redesigned one high school and two elementary schools last year.

Mr. Adamowski, who helped lead school improvement work at the American Institutes for Research before going to Hartford in 2006, said the danger in turnaround work is to do “too much in a shotgun manner,” without “going deep.”

The University of Virginia’s business and education schools run a joint program that trains teams made up of a principal, school staff members, and a district-office “shepherd” to do rapid school turnarounds. It began in Virginia seven years ago, has trained 84 principals and 272 team members, and has expanded to other states and districts.

Daniel Duke, an education professor with the program, said those experiences have not shown that school closure or wholesale staff replacement is necessary. But a new principal is key, and the quality of that leadership is crucial to the practices that will determine a successful turnaround.

For instance, educators often say that teachers should meet in teams to analyze data, but they might do that at schools where turnarounds work as well as those where they don’t, Mr. Duke said. The difference is a principal who can lead the staff in being open to what the data tell them, not “warding off” conclusions about how instruction needs to change, he said.

Responding to Call

Regardless of the debate over the fine points of turning around schools, and who should do that, organizations of many stripes are responding to the turnaround call.

Joseph Wise, the chief education officer at EdisonLearning, said the New York City-based school management company has “staffed up pretty aggressively” to position itself for more turnaround work. It has added staff members with expertise in school turnaround, and started a new team to help the company’s regional managers plan strategy with school boards, superintendents, and charter school boards.

Mr. Meranus of the NewSchools Venture Fund said that in the past two months, more of his organization’s investment partners have been calling for guidance on getting into turnaround work.

New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit group that trains and places new principals, is getting more inquiries from its state and district partners about expansion, said Jon Schnur, its chief executive officer. One state, for instance, has expressed interest in having New Leaders expand from one district to multiple districts statewide, with a particular focus on the lowest-performing schools, Mr. Schnur said.

Mr. Guenther of Mass Insight cautioned that the big turnaround push, with its attendant funding, risks attracting those unprepared for the work.

“States will have lots of money they have to spend quickly,” he said. “Providers could just hang out their shingles, rename their existing staff, and call themselves turnaround partners.”

Even with its risks and challenges, many see the high-visibility call for school turnarounds as an unprecedented opportunity.

“This is a transformative moment in time,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a recent interview. “If we blow it, if we don’t come up with models that work, it’s a disappointment to people.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week

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