06/12/2011 02:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2011

Why Successful Turnarounds Work

As the first year of school turnarounds at scale comes to a close, we are bound to read of more failures such as the infamous restart of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

Bureaucrats often take a good idea such as "Restorative Practices," but because they are so convinced that teachers' "low expectations" are the problem, implementation becomes a joke. One reason why Dale Dearnley quit teaching at Central Falls was the shallow implementation of an idealistic disciplinary system that revealed students enjoyed going to the "Restorative Room" because "they can socialize with their friends, [and] joke around with a so-called 'behavior specialist.'"

Fair is fair, though, and we should honor leaders who respect the moral core of students, and do the hard work required to create safe and orderly schools. Apparently it took ten years for Dr. Bertie Simmons to turn around Furr High School, in Houston, but when violence spun out of control, the hand-picked principal decided against expelling gangbangers. Instead, "She took 32 gang members, none of whom had ever been on an airplane, to Ground Zero. They saw the empty footprints. They walked the hallowed ground. They prayed in Trinity Church. Dr. Simmons also took them to the United Nations, to Chinatown, to Central Park, to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. They even saw a Broadway show. In one trip, these kids saw more of the world than they had seen their entire lives. When they got back to Houston, the violence abruptly stopped."

Probably the best example of what it takes to turnaround the toughest schools is Kenyatta Stansberry, the tattooed, spiky-haired principal of Marshall High School in Chicago. Stansberry, "the Marine," "will not take any lip. She can defuse a hard-core gangbanger." And "she patrols Facebook into the night, looking for signs of a brewing school fight or just to tell her students. 'It's 11 p.m. Time to go to bed.'"

To gain control of the school, however, 161 students were sent elsewhere, 104 of them transferred to other schools, and 34 went to alternative schools. Then, the love part of the tough love approach was able to show results. Stansberry identified a core group of troublemakers and met with them once a week. "That group of 10 is now down to five -- she calls them 'the Fab Five.'"

I wonder whether the principals of the 104 transfers will be equally diligent in addressing behavior, so that the influx of potential troublemakers does not further damage their schools. It is true that "troublemakers" are potential leaders, but turning them around takes a commitment that has been lost on most data-driven reformers.

I have experienced the hard work, as well as the joy, of appealing to the better angels of teens, as we introduce them to the wider world. Because of NCLB, however, we do not even bring kids in Oklahoma City on field trips to the Murrah Federal Building Bombing Memorial. But while I expect many more stories about turnarounds that failed after taking the quick and easy approach of blaming violence and disorder on teachers, I hope that true believers in turnarounds will learn from Dr. Simmons and Ms. Stansberry.