10/27/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011

What's Right With School Turnarounds

There is plenty that is wrong with the Duncan administration's rushed mandate to turnaround schools. Mostly, it looks like a "race to the bottom" for school transformations. But, a few turnarounds may be bringing some reality-based policies to urban education. Due to School Improvement Grants (S.I.G.), "reformers" may be stumbling upon some lessons that, if heeded, could help end our educational civil war.

The Catalyst's special issue on the turnaround of Chicago's Marshall High School describes the type of students who may be gaining the most from the latest attempts to improve our toughest schools. Tamoura, like so many students, blamed herself (as well as her elementary school) for not getting into a choice school where she would receive instruction that was worthy of her intellect. Tamoura struggled with health problems and then her mother died unexpectedly when she was in 7th grade. Throughout secondary school, "every time she moved from one class to the next, she did her best to avert her eyes from anyone and just blend in. Often, she had to duck around fights or avoid bullies. She didn't tell anyone about the dread she felt."

In other words, Tamoura was one of countless victims of educational dysfunction, made worse by political correctness. Inner city schools, like Marshall, would have never become so awful if urban teachers and principals had been allowed to protect students by enforcing their codes of conduct. It was much easier to blame teachers' "low expectations" than to enforce behavioral and attendance standards. Instead of investing in high-quality alternative slots and counselors for in-house suspension so that it was possible to assess disciplinary consequences, school systems prefer to issue endless emails instructing teachers to solve the problems themselves.

Teachers flinch at the insult of being blamed for anarchy in urban schools, but the real victims were students like Tamoura, as well as her peers who have been less successful in coping with threats at school. And now that there is an environment that allows for safety, order, teaching, and learning, Tamoura and many of her friends are blossoming. Tamoura has come out of her shell and she has been accepted by a university.

The Catalyst editorializes about students like Tamoura who seem to be the prime beneficiaries of turnarounds, "So far, experts haven't figured out how to capitalize on the strengths these young women, and others like them, bring to school They may not have top test scores, but they are earnest, motivated and intelligent students who, for one reason or another, wind up in neighborhood high schools that are still trying to find a formula for academic success." It is a safe bet, however, that these long-neglected students will rise to the occasion.

Unfortunately, not all of "the same students in the same building" are excelling. Only 16% of the students in Marshall's neighborhood attend the school. The turnaround principal counseled out 161 students who were behind on credits, and too many others, in the school that started 2011 with 771 students, have not risen to the challenge of higher expectations.

Marshall is not alone. Nationally, 27 percent of the schools that have received federal S.I.G. grants have lost 20 percent or more of their students in recent years. Many of those missing children are flourishing in selective schools. But, before long, we will have to address the children who are most difficult to educate and thus are being removed by schools undergoing improvement. We can no longer afford the fiction that the only thing these children need is an accountability regime that condemns teachers for not saving them. We must now face the fact that for many the choice is between dumping our most traumatized children on the streets or making an expensive and comprehensive system of interventions.

Many sincere educators, "reformers" and traditionalists alike, will complain about the trade-off necessary to give Tamoura a chance for an education. The conventional wisdom is that investments in alternatives would allow educators to warehouse their discipline problems. That worry is half right. So neighborhood schools fail to draw the line on students who act out their pain by causing the chronic disorder that robs the entire school. I doubt many people actually believe it, but the temptation is to maintain the fiction that better educators would transform Tamoura's life prospects and save troubled children, while keeping them all in the same classrooms.

An obvious compromise position is bolstered by another part of the Catalyst's research. There have been successes in turnaround schools where the In-House Suspension teacher works with only ten students, or when in-house is staffed with up to three educators who can counsel troubled students while keeping them on track academically. The Catalyst praised the efforts of the single In-house teacher at Marshall, while reporting that he finally was overwhelmed.

The common sense answer is a Rolls Royce-quality system of in-school and separate alternative classes and schools. The hefty price tag for high quality interventions would be small in comparison to a generation of failed "reforms." The only explanation why we have starved alternative education that makes sense to me is guilt. To borrow William Julius Wilson's explanation for another aspect of our tragic racial history, we have been jockeying for the position of "I'm innocent." The system scapegoats educators' "low expectations," not intense concentrations of generational poverty, that keep undermining educational progress.

The Catalyst also has an answer for that guilt trip. Marshall now serves about 1/6th of the children in its attendance area, and only about 1/5th of them were counseled out for failing to meet its new standards. Since Marshall is competing with 12 new schools, there should be no shame in admitting that about 1/30th of the students who cannot avail themselves of those choices need the most intense interventions.

Those proportions are very similar to those of my old school, and I suspect they are not atypical. Because of the breakdown of the family and of urban schools, we have utterly failed those students who are emotionally incapable of functioning in neighborhood schools as they are now organized. We underestimate how many Tamouras are quietly persevering and overestimate the percentage of kids who have been traumatized to the point of dysfunction. So, in order to keep the blame game going, "reformers" and traditionalists do nothing to address the peer pressure that turns schools full of challenging students into anarchy.

And that gets back to a cause for hope. A generation ago, if "reformers" had listened to teachers and our students, and not scapegoated us, we would have been natural allies. Had liberal school "reformers" invested in high-quality pre-school and used marvelous data systems to address truancy and keep kids from falling through the cracks, instead of escalating the war on teachers, educators would have become their most loyal allies. And had the Duncan administration invested in the tools for addressing the legacy of Jim Crow, not the silver bullet of firing teachers in mass, urban teachers would be in love with his S.I.G. experiment.

Its better late than never. Systems that do not have the same hard-earned experience with turnarounds as Chicago will probably not have the time to lay the foundations for sustainable improvements. But, if the field of education starts to embrace reality-driven policies, such as those that Catalyst describes, who knows what could be accomplished during a second term?