Special Report
Federal Commentary

Turnaround Schools That Work

By Richard D. Kahlenberg — August 28, 2009 7 min read

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has courageously taken on the most important—and most difficult—problem in American education: turning around the country’s lowest-performing schools. Duncan has noted that for years districts allowed failing schools to slide, and has called, instead, for “far-reaching reforms” that fundamentally change the culture in the country’s worst 5,000 schools. Ironically, his preferred approach, which focuses primarily on changing the faculty and school governance, is itself too timid.


In a June 17 Education Week Commentary, Duncan wrote that, in Chicago, “we moved the adults out of the building, kept the children there, and brought in new adults.” (“Start Over,” June, 17 2009.) But an exclusive focus on changing the principal and teachers misses two-thirds of the larger school community, which also includes students and parents. This partial-turnaround approach in Chicago was met with “mixed” results, the education consultant Bryan Hassel told The New York Times. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago noted in a recent report that “most students in the Chicago Public Schools continue to fail.”

The regulations under which the federal government will award $3.5 billion in Title I school improvement money, announced by Secretary Duncan last week, include four turnaround models that allow states and districts some flexibility in how they deal with failing schools. But the rules also contain strong incentives to choose the models that focus on changing staff and governance. (“Turnaround Grants Facing Tight Leash,” same issue.)

Changing the principal and teachers in a school isn’t enough, in part because many years of research have confirmed what all parents know: Kids learn from one another as well as from the teacher. In high-poverty schools, a child is surrounded by classmates who are less likely to have big dreams and, accordingly, are less academically engaged and more prone to acting out and cutting class. Classmates in high-poverty schools are more likely to move in the middle of the year, creating disruption in the classroom, and they are less likely to have large vocabularies, which can rub off on peers on the playground and in school.

Parents are also an important part of a school community. Students benefit when parents regularly volunteer in the classroom and know how to hold school officials accountable when things go wrong. Low-income parents, who may be working several jobs, may not own a car, and may have had bad experiences themselves as students, are four times less likely to be members of a PTA, and are only half as likely to volunteer.

The student and parent makeup of a school, in turn, profoundly affects the type of teacher who can be recruited. Polls consistently find that teachers care more about “work environment” than they do about salary. They care about school safety, whether they will have to spend large portions of their time on classroom management, and whether parents will make sure kids do their homework. That’s why it’s so difficult to attract and keep great teachers in high-poverty schools, even when bonuses are offered.

The most promising “turnaround” model is one that recognizes these realities and seeks to turn high-poverty schools into magnet schools that change not only the faculty, but also the student and parent mix in the school. Failing schools can be shuttered and reopened with new themes and pedagogical approaches that attract new teachers and a mix of middle-class and low-income students. Meanwhile, some low-income students from the old school will be given the opportunity to fill the spots vacated by middle-income children who had been attending more-affluent schools.

A leading example of this comes from Wake County, N.C., which includes the city of Raleigh and its surrounding suburbs. As Gerald Grant notes in his important new book Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, Wake County school officials made a critical decision in the early 1980s to avoid the problems associated with concentrated poverty in neighboring Durham schools and provided virtually every Raleigh school with a special theme, such as science and technology, arts and theater, or International Baccalaureate. Raleigh’s inner-city schools, which had been marked by white flight, were soon filled with economically and racially diverse student enrollments. Many of the schools had waiting lists.

To prevent the creation of enclaves of privilege, the Raleigh magnets are nonselective. And to avoid legal problems associated with using race in assigning students, the schools look for a mix of pupils who are and are not eligible for subsidized lunch. The results have been very promising. Wake County, writes Grant, “reduced the gap between rich and poor, black and white, more than any other large urban educational system in America.” The district’s results track with data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for mathematics, which finds that low-income 4th grade students attending more-affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of places where magnet schools have failed to attract middle-class families. The most famous is probably a Kansas City, Mo., high school that featured a $5 million swimming pool, an indoor track, and a Model United Nations wired for language translation, yet failed to draw white middle-class students.

But well-designed plans poll parents ahead of time to find out what sorts of programs would be attractive to them. For example, in Cambridge, Mass., which has a system of universal choice and seeks an economic balance among schools, officials recently turned the struggling, predominantly low-income Tobin School, located near a large low-income housing complex, into a Montessori school. In 2006-07, Tobin had attracted only 12 first-choice applicants to fill 60 pre-K and kindergarten seats. The next year, when it reopened with a Montessori approach, Tobin attracted 145 applicants, with twice as many middle-class as low-income students applying, says Michael Alves, who administers the student lottery.

Using magnet themes to turn around failing high-poverty schools won’t work everywhere. Some schools located in extremely dangerous neighborhoods may be unable to attract middle-class children. But high-quality, economically integrated schools should be the first turnaround option explored, with efforts to make Plessy v. Ferguson—separate but equal—work as the fallback. Oddly, those two priorities are usually reversed today.

Indeed, there is a strange quality to the turnaround debate. We stand in awe of the impressive efforts of a few schools—like those of the Knowledge Is Power Program—to make high-poverty schools work, and ignore the larger reality, documented by University of Wisconsin professor Douglas N. Harris, that middle-class schools are 22 times more likely than high-poverty schools to be high-performing. Larger school policies cannot be based on the heroic efforts of a small band of young superstar teachers working round the clock. That strategy may succeed in 82 KIPP schools, but it is not scalable to the 5,000 schools that Secretary Duncan has identified.

Moreover, KIPP itself might not be up to the task of turning around failing high-poverty schools. So far, it has succeeded with small, self-selected groups of students who apply to, and persist in, a rigorous program. (In San Francisco-area KIPP schools, 60 percent drop out.) What will happen if KIPP has to try to educate every student—the type of population that regular high-poverty public schools educate every day?

Fundamentally, we need to rethink the basic theory of turning around failing schools. The unspoken assumption of current approaches is that teachers in high-poverty schools (and their union protectors) are to blame, and that if we could fire those teachers, and bring in union-free charter schools, we could fix the problem. Mountains of research, however, suggest that the reason high-poverty schools fail so often is that economic segregation drives failure: It congregates the kids with the smallest dreams, the parents who are most pressed, and burnt-out teachers who often cannot get hired elsewhere.

How have we come to the point where creating high-quality integrated schools isn’t an explicit part of the turnaround discussion?

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Turnaround Schools That Work


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