THE BLOG

The Turnaround Vultures

06/13/2013 01:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2013

We are frequently told of institutions in crisis that are in desperate need of a turnaround. From the country of Greece to the Chicago Public Schools, there are benevolent benefactors -- from the IMF to Michelle Rhee -- waiting to swoop in and fix your problems. Give us complete control, they say, and we'll right the sinking ship. They adopt the language of the people and promise to aid the oppressed. In reality, they are merely vultures, waiting for the kill.

Take the International Monetary Fund. Though I'm no economist and have no Paul Krugman beard, I understand the basics of the Greek bailout: in exchange for loans, you slash social services and "balance" your budget. The term balance is a misnomer, since the evisceration of the Greek economy leads only to deeper deficits and a downward death spiral. The vulture gets what he wants - years of revenue from the carcass of the Greek state. But for the average Greek citizen, it's hard to get dividends from a corpse.

To me, there is a clear, persistent school of thought from the "recovery" efforts in Greece to Mayor Emanuel's plan to turnaround the Chicago Public Schools. To build, we must destroy. To unify, we must conquer. While I fault teacher's unions for their inflexibility and resistance to change, Emanuel seems intent on taking it to an opposite extreme by closing a wide swath of schools. I am swayed by the rising evidence against these reform policies.

When now-Secretary Arne Duncan closed schools in Chicago, only 6 percent of dislocated students actually moved to better schools that could support them. The rest were shuffled back into large, comprehensive, low-performing high schools. They were lost. After Michelle Rhee closed D.C. schools, the odds of those students making adequate yearly progress decreased rather than increased. In New York City under Mayor Bloomberg, the story is similar -- graduation rates and attendance declined as reorganized schools lost their sense of community as well as staff diversity. Teach for America is particularly adept at incentivizing districts to replace veteran teachers with younger, cheaper, whiter ones. I would encourage you to read this report from Elaine Weiss and Don Long to see further findings on reform efforts in these three cities.

The vulture reformers -- who have proven adept at raising corporate money and implementing market-based reform through complete mayoral control -- have forgotten that teaching boils down to the interpersonal. It is the trust established by a principal and communicated by teachers to students that creates an effective school. It is difficult to replicate and hard to sustain. Everyone from the top down must be convinced that they are listened to, appreciated and rewarded for their successes. Building a good school, or changing a bad one, takes many, many years of low staff turnover. There is no magic bullet or single policy. A good school is a mix of complementary personalities, hard work and mutual respect among everyone within its walls.

Tackling poverty head-on through a network of social services -- and through a curriculum richer than standardized tests alone -- will increase student performance in the long-term. It is complex and time-consuming work. Yes, we have our successful charter schools -- but they are the exception, not the norm. In fact, only 17 percent of students do better in charters -- while 34 percent actually do worse. KIPP may have excellent quality control, but for-profit online charters are another story altogether. The whole charter school debate is framed incorrectly -- we should be talking about ones that work, not raising a cap on all of them.

So it's time to stop listening to the vultures. And with more and more data now to prove the extent of the damage, it's time to stop experimenting on our neediest children.