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Gary M. Ratner

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What's Necessary for Congress to 'Get It Right' on School Turnarounds?

Posted: 02/ 8/2012 1:39 pm

As the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization has been repeatedly delayed, a recurrent justification on Capitol Hill has been that it is more important to "get it right" than to do it quickly. One of the most critical areas where Congress needs to "get it right" is overhauling the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy for turning around low-achieving schools.

Now that the Senate education committee has issued its bi-partisan ESEA reauthorization bill (Senate) and the Republican House committee Chairman released his counterpart draft bill (House), we can ask: did they "get it right" on school turnarounds? Did they establish the right goals, address the real problems and focus on what works?

NCLB's policy -- escalating sanctions -- has widely failed to significantly improve low-achieving schools. It fundamentally misconceives the nature of the turnaround process, treating low-achieving schools like machines, with independent parts/programs replaceable one-by-one over multiple years on a prescribed schedule. In fact, low-achieving schools are complex organizations of many interacting stakeholders -- staff, parents, students and involved community members. Engaging the stakeholders, collectively, to change their own school-related expectations and practices is the heart of successful turnarounds.

The good news is that we already know much about how to do this. There are common elements of successful school turnarounds -- characterizeable as leadership, instructional improvement, curriculum, climate and parent and community involvement and support. There are also common sub-elements, i.e., policies and practices, for accomplishing each element. And there is an orderly process by which turnarounds can be done. .

To see if the bills got it right yet, let's look at five key areas:

  • Statutory Goals and Performance Measures -- Like NCLB, both bills essentially treat raising student achievement scores on statewide assessments as the chief statutory goal of turning around low-achieving schools and low test scores as the chief means for identifying which schools need to be "improved" (turned around). This huge emphasis on raising test scores is harmful and unnecessary. It would perpetuate NCLB-like destructive pressures for schools to teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, falsify test scores, etc. to avoid being labeled as failing and being subjected to interventions.

  • Instead, Congress should chiefly focus schools on the specific changes in educational practice that dramatically help schools improve: the above common elements/sub-elements of success (successful practices). First, explicitly make adopting the successful practices a central Title I goal. Second, convert the practices into a performance measure. Require every Title I-funded school to publicly report selected statistical indicators of how much it has implemented the successful practices, e.g., average time teachers spend per week in peer collaboration.
  • Such public reporting would create a powerful accountability incentive for low-performing schools to concentrate on making important systemic improvements, rather than, as now, concentrating on raising standardized test scores. Otherwise, schools would have to publicly admit, in effect, they hadn't tried to improve. An improvement implementation measure would also provide much more comprehensive grounds than test scores alone to identify the lowest-performing schools for turnaround.
    • Requiring Successful Practices and Processes for Turnaround Schools -- A major Senate strength is that it does require all turnaround schools to implement certain practices -- e.g., teacher collaboration time, ongoing professional development and community services for overcoming students' non-academic obstacles to learning -- also contained in successful practices. Further, it specifies a regular turnaround process, including comprehensive "needs analysis," stakeholder collaboration, implementation and technical assistance. These provisions need expansion, so turnaround schools incorporate all successful practices and process requirements aren't restricted to staff replacement/governance strategies, but extend to all turnaround matters.

  • By contrast, the House fails to require low-achieving schools to implement any common elements of success or process -- leaving it entirely to states to develop improvement "systems" and "interventions" to meet such Title I "schools' weaknesses." This would wastefully and self-defeatingly risk having thousands of school districts nationwide reinvent the wheel of what works in school turnarounds, rather than benefit from what's already known.
  • Yet, the House does endorse some successful practices and process components by retaining them in its optional "schoolwide [improvement] programs." This program could be made mandatory for a specific portion of low-achieving schools.
    • Preparing Skilled Leaders -- For turnarounds to succeed, perhaps the most crucial component of the common elements is a skilled turnaround leader. As shown by experience and confirmed by Anthony S. Bryk, et al. in their groundbreaking research, [Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, 2010, [pp. 45-46, 199] having such a leader -- typically the principal -- is essential not only as the "catalyst" for change but, thereafter, to guide a complex, multi-year process. However, there are currently far too few such leaders, even to lead turnarounds in the lowest-achieving 5% (about 5,000) schools the Senate bill mandates for turnaround.

  • Fortunately, the Senate also addresses this serious national problem.  A competitive grantee would create a turnaround leadership training center, starting with gathering experts on what works best in leading turnarounds to develop a cutting-edge training program.  Then, the center would train and mentor experienced principals to become turnaround leaders, and support them during the turnaround process.
  • The House doesn't address this issue.  Unless Congress provides for effectively training thousands of turnaround leaders, it will set up the entire turnaround initiative for failure.

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    • Staff Replacement/Governance Changes -- Assuming a school has a skilled turnaround principal, the principal needs time to get to know the staff and evaluate their abilities and willingness to join in the turnaround effort.  But the Senate mandates that schools select one of seven "school improvement strategy "options, six of which explicitly involve replacing staff/changing governance.  These improperly focus on replacing many staff beyond the principal before the new turnaround leader could reasonably evaluate individuals' capabilities and willingness to cooperate.  This adversarial relationship is punitive, unnecessary and likely to cause negative staff, parent and community morale.  That is opposite to what's needed for successful turnarounds -- gaining all stakeholder groups' cooperation.

  • Further, these six "strategies" -- involving major staff replacement, charter conversions/private management, closure - are generally similar to those in the Race To The Top turnaround models.  They are likewise http://http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-m-ratner/wheres-the-evidence-serio_b_865955.htmlnot shown supported by evidence, impractical, unnecessary and/or harmful.  While the seventh, "state flexibility," allows states to propose their own approach, it gives the Secretary of Education total discretion to withhold approval.  Thus, staff replacement could still be demanded there.  Valuably, the House omits these intrusive and unnecessary constraints.
    • Percent of Schools Subject to Turnaround Requirements -- Given the paucity of skilled turnaround leaders, states' limited human capacity to provide needed technical assistance, tight federal budgets, and the need to proceed cautiously in an undertaking of this difficulty, the Senate is right to limit the percentage of schools subject to turnaround mandates.  Even 5% would be much too high -- unless Congress provides for effectively preparing thousands of turnaround principals, greatly expands states' capacity to assist districts/schools and funds the added costs of turnarounds for that many schools.

    For America's critical attempt to turn around its low-achieving schools to have a chance of success, it must shift its emphasis from raising test scores to implementing what works.  The ESEA reauthorization is the place.  For Congress to "get it right" on school turnarounds, it needs to address the concerns raised in the five above areas.  The time is now.