Special Report

School-Turnaround Call Points Up Challenges

By Catherine Gewertz — August 11, 2009 8 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 we didn’t know how to go to the moon when Kennedy put that out, either,” he said. “This is a bigger challenge than that. This is our moonshot. And it’s not one moonshot, it’s thousands.”

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.

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

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 his 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 turnarounds in the fall of 2010.

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 at opening perhaps one new school,and carefully controlling 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.”

Jordan Meranus, who oversees turnaround work for the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, thinks that a varied field of school management organizations offers hopeful signs of a growing capacity to do turnaround work.

He points to 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.

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientistwho 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. But that knowledge is not “codified, easily accessible, and packaged for broad consumption.”

“The challenge is getting the right strategy in the right place, and getting the know-how to more people,” he said. (“Research Doesn’t Offer Much Guidance on Turnarounds,” Aug. 12, 2009)

‘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 principal and staff members, more school-level autonomy, and a year of planning that yields a 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.”

Daniel L. Duke, an education professor with a University of Virginia program that trains school turnaround specialists, said he has found that school closure and wholesale staff replacement are not always necessary. But a new principal is key, he said, 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, he said, not “warding off” conclusions about how instruction needs to change.

Staffing Up

Regardless of the debate over how best to turn around schools, organizations of many stripes are responding to the call.

Joseph Wise, the chief education officer at EdisonLearning, said the New York City-based education management company has “staffed up pretty aggressively” to position itself for more turnaround work. It has added people with expertise in school turnaround, and started a new team to help the company’s regional managers strategize 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 nonprofit 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 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 as School-Turnaround Call Points Up Challenges


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