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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.