09/01/2011 12:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 01, 2011

School Turnarounds, Year Two

As we begin the second year of the Duncan Administration's experiment with turnarounds at scale, the modest results of his program must be seen in context. We have two decades of trying to turnaround failing schools, but we still wrestle with the same common sense issue. Regardless of how many billions of dollars are invested in data, the question is how do we build respectful learning cultures in inner city secondary schools.

For instance, the Las Vegas Sun reports on a new principal's plans to ban electronic devices, because, "when you have kids who are used to aimlessly texting and taking calls at will, walking into class with ear buds at will, listening to music and ignoring teachers, instruction suffers." He plans to enforce the tardy policy and put an end to students cutting class and "just walking the hallways aimlessly."

The obvious question is why the educators at the old school were not allowed to take control of the building. But, I do not want to go there. If it takes a $3.5 billion dollar roll of the dice to focus the minds of policy wonks on reality, perhaps the proper response is, "better late than never."

The next step should be reading Charles Payne's "Turning Around on Turnarounds," in I Used to Think ... And Now I Think.... Payne is the veteran Chicago administrator who wrote, So Much Reform, So Little Change. He originally thought that the new wave of turnarounds would be another "silver bullet de jour." Now, he thinks that "there might really be a 'there' there."

Payne still has doubts regarding the main pillars of Duncan's policies. He does not support the shortcut where districts "just back up the truck and fire everybody." He disputes the wisdom of "hanging the sword of Damocles" over teachers and saying, "if things don't get better you will be gone." It is clear, writes Payne, "that jobs in turnaround schools are burnout jobs."

Payne has visited many Chicago turnarounds, and he does not "discount stories of what some would call 'cheating' -- aggressive removal of the most disruptive students" and "massaging the numbers." But he is struck by the number of students who have changed their minds on turnarounds. Now, many feel that their school's turnaround was the best thing in their high school careers.

Payne then addressed the issue of "freewheeling suspensions of students." Always a realist, Payne concludes "that in long-out-of-control schools, leadership has first got to take control, and suspensions are a part of that."

Even better, Payne calls for hard thinking about the best ways to handle persistently disruptive students, and provide supports to suspended students. "Maybe if you invest heavily in social supports ... you can institutionalize higher expectations for behavior and instruction."

Payne concludes that the right question is not whether the latest turnaround effort is a bad or good idea. He emphasizes, "the better question is What would it take for us to make something out of it?" If reality-based policies come out of Duncan's turnarounds, I hope, the short term damage done to teachers could be worth it.