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Turning Around the Administration's Turnaround Policy

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President Obama needs to remember the wisdom of coach John Wooten, who said "Be Quick, but Don't Hurry."

Since I'm a huge fan of the President, as well as the "bible" of the turnaround movement, Mass Insight's "The Turnaround Challenge," I'm saddened that the current administration has ignored the first rules of transforming our toughest schools.

"The Turnaround Challenge" explained why neighborhood schools serving intense concentrations of students characterized by generational poverty are different and also why "light touch" changes -- such as seeking to just improve instruction -- can not work. Curriculum-driven reforms can't significantly raise student performance until there has been a dramatic change in a troubled school's culture. Worst, the lowest-performing schools have typically been subjected to a series of doomed "quick fixes." The failure of those "silver bullets" have made "the DNA" of failing schools even more resistant to improvements. So, turnarounds need to be intense, but reformers must also take the time to lay a foundation for dramatic improvements.

Previously under No Child Left Behind, failing schools were often required to do no more than change the marquee in front of the building and claim to be reconstituted under the "Other" category for turning around schools. The good news is that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ended that fiction. The bad news, however, is that he rushed ahead, mandating archetypical light-touch policies. Most of them, like performance pay, have a long history of failure.

Secretary Duncan should read Laura Pappano's "Inside School Turnarounds". She describes the hard work, the massive investments and the urgency of reforms in 13 schools, mostly in Connecticut. These turnarounds have some advantages that are beyond the imaginations of most educators. After all, Connecticut is the nation's second richest state and the Ohio turnaround was partnered with Cincinnati Bell. Their CEO, Jack Cassidy, even gave his cell phone number to students.

My reading of Pappano, however, is that reformers are in far too great of a hurry. Turnaround enthusiasts have a "once-in-a-lifetime infusion of cash." This encourages the "rip the Band Aid off" model of change and "to look at everything as a time crunch." Some true believers are even willing to abandon a previous whole school reform during a school year, tell educators that they must reapply for their jobs, announce a brand new redesign will be started next fall and then complain when morale collapses.

Pappano cites experts, who should be the most enthusiastic proponents of transformational change, who realize that the movement has gotten ahead of itself. For instance, Andrew Calkins, a co-author of "The Turnaround Challenge," said:

"We were hoping there would be a real boost in federal support for school improvement and that it would be four or five years down the road. Now all of the money will be poured into the turnaround sector before it's ready. We are at risk of making the mistake of trying to do the scale up before we know what the work looks like."

Similarly, Scott Given, the director of a nonprofit turnaround organization, is very concerned that the broader school turnaround movement is not poised to drive fast school turnaround at scale. "I think, unfortunately, a lot of efforts will fall flat," he said, "and within five years the idea of school turnaround will fizzle."

The most obvious problem with turnarounds at the pace set by Secretary Duncan is the lack of turnaround specialists and teachers. While Calkins says that there is nothing to stop every professional development company from slapping a turnaround label on the door, Ellen Guiney, based on 25 years of experience, observes that, as a practical matter, you aren't going to change the teaching force in urban education overnight. "You can grab all the good teachers and put them in three or four schools, but what is that going to do?" Guiney said.

It's more difficult to talk about an even tougher problem: the "creaming" of the most motivated students into restructured schools. But Adam Johnson, a turnaround high school principal, acknowledged the need to attract the "right students." Johnson wants to take the time to help struggling urban kids discover their inner student, but if too many kids "sign on and slack off" it could put him out of business. To keep his job, Johnson competes for the top students and finds ways to "nudge out those who can't cut it." The result is that neighborhood schools are left with "an underclass of the underclass."

I have experienced the thrill of the first two years of a promising turnaround, as well as the despair that resulted after the improvements could not be sustained. My school's experience confirmed the mantra that "if you do not have time to do it right the first time, when will you have time to do it over?" I sincerely hope that Secretary Duncan will call a timeout, slow the process down and not squander the opportunity to improve the most challenging 5 to 10 percent of nation's schools.

Please, read more of my thoughts at Scholastic Administrator.com.