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As School Turnarounds Strike Out, Try, Try Again

In hundreds of poor schools, millions of dollars of School Improvement Grants (SIG) are being announced. Why do we not hear celebrations?

In my experience, June is the time to celebrate our kids' victories, as we also mourn our recently deceased students and former students. It is a time to hug our graduates, as we recall once bright-eyed children who have just graduated to the adult lockup. This time of year, teachers and administrators are running on fumes. We all deserve a decent interval before the SIG is dumped on us.

As exhausted educators are summoned to fateful faculty meetings, everyone understands the mark of shame that has been branded on us. But we do not know whether the central office has had time to draft a viable reform plan, or whether they have even found a qualified principal to take on the challenge. Teachers know that they will be enduring many more of these meetings, and generating tons of paperwork. But will the paperwork just be a "cover your rear end" exercise, or will it be a transparent tactic for getting rid of veteran teachers?

Will the turnaround be designed to remove ineffective teachers, or will it be a power play to drive out good and great instructors who have minds of their own, and/or replace Baby Boomers with 23-year-olds?

Also, in my experience, administrators have the same trepidation. They, like the union, would have tackled the unpleasant task of firing ineffective teachers, if they had confidence that qualified replacements were available for our toughest schools. But most administrators took their jobs in order to help children, not to impose collective punishment on adults.

Besides, few veteran educators believe that the expensive carrot and stick programs mandated for SIG schools have a high chance for success. Essentially, turnarounds are NCLB on steroids, and two more studies by the IES What Works Clearinghouse and the National Academies of Science have again documented how and why data-driven reforms have failed. One contributing scientist was quoted in Joy Resmovitz's recent Huffington Post article, explaining, "these policies are treating humans like rats in a maze," and that is "one of the worst ideas out there."

Take for instance, Huntington High School, where brand-new Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy gave the school only six weeks to prepare for replacing one half of its teachers. Harold Blume wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Huntington is "expected to become the laboratory for just how fast things can go." One issue that the district did not have the time to address is how to decide who to fire -- the regular teachers who did not raise test scores enough, or the teachers in the selective school within a school who did.

Or take Austin Polytechnic High School in Chicago where a last act of their lame duck principal was dismissing nearly a quarter of the school's teachers. Four of the seven had received "Excellent" ratings last year. So, one half of the student body signed a petition protesting the firings and nearly a third of the kids joined a walk-out. Meribah Knight of the Chicago News Cooperative, who had been embedded in the school, learned that nearly two thirds of the faculty complained about the principal's failure to listen or to provide consistent discipline. These tumultuous events "follow a year of abrupt fits and starts." Knight explained part of the problem with the continuing failure to turn the school around, "This year, the district placed about half -- 289 schools -- on probation. Sixteen years into the overhaul, with so many schools on probation and few effective measures taken to improve them, educators and researchers say probation shock value has worn off."

Don't get me wrong; I support turnarounds where there has been time to build capacity, and I want my union to take risks in order to help lay a foundation for success. For instance, Education Week has been following Shawnee H.S. in Kentucky where one half of the teachers were removed. But the Shawnee restart followed a two year planning process, where relationships were built with patrons when the students were still in middle school. Time was taken to build relationships with the union, and pre-school professional development focused on team-building. Even so, the hand-picked principal with a cherry-picked staff is worried that their timeline was too short.

Even before the results of the first year of SIG turnaround at scale have come in, true believers in turnarounds have been issuing warnings that the outcomes will not be pretty. My favorite reports are Public Impact's "Leading Indicators of School Turnarounds" and "Try, Try Again," on restarting failed turnarounds. Public Impact noted that turnarounds in general have a first-time failure rate of 70 to 90 percent, while arguing that struggling restarts should be immediately restarted all over again. And given the number of rushed turnarounds that were started without first building capacity, I suspect that Public Impact anticipates a lot of bad statistics will soon be revealed. But if turnarounds did not have the capacity the first time, where will districts get the capacity to redo the failed restarts, especially as they start a new round?

I can not disagree with some of Public Impact's conclusions, such as its warning that June is too late to be hiring for an August restart, and that "In any major change effort, there are early signs -- leading indicators -- that an organization is on the right track, or is doomed to become a statistic." But, what was their answer to the challenge of finding teachers and administrators who can heroically turnaround our toughest schools? Public Impact advises restart leaders to "risk mis-identification of failure." Then to make themselves clear, Public Impact implied that educators who are wrongly identified as ineffective will have a second chance in life.

Now that is a sentiment that will make exhausted inner city teachers feel better.



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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...