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Why the School Turnaround Experiment Is Failing

The disappointing results of the Duncan administration's controversial School Improvement Grants exemplify the fundamental flaw of test-driven school "reform." The preliminary analysis of the SIG's first year indicated that some schools produced double digit gains in math and/or reading test scores, that more produced single digit gains, and one third saw declines in student performance.

A quarter of those schools showed a reversal of the decline in test scores that had been occurring before the infusion of millions of dollars. Another quarter had been improving however, and saw a reversal of their previous gains. It could be argued that SIG benefitted elementary schools, but not high schools or, especially, middle schools.

These findings are consistent with the conclusions of the National Academies of Science's blue ribbon panel, which explained that test-driven reforms may pressure some schools to become more productive while encouraging others to increase primitive teach-to-the-test and push out the harder-to-educate children. They are also consistent with the research of Paul Tough, who showed that the contemporary reform movement has achieved some successes, especially in schools that can exclude the most troubled children, but that it has probably worsened the lives of children in our toughest schools.

That leads to the metaphorical question of what parent would continue an experimental treatment that significantly helped one of his children, perhaps produced some benefit for another, while damaging a third? Why do we keep trying risky experiments that are bound to harm some children as they may or may not improve outcomes for others?

Duncan's SIG, like his RttT, his NCLB waivers, and his other innovations, are like chemotherapy. They introduce policies that are inherently destructive in the hopes of producing more good than injury to students. For instance, SIG begins with the collective punishment of principals and teachers, further fraying the fabric of schools that already tend to have low levels of social trust. Whether schools remove a mandatory 50 percent of teachers or just "exit" so-called "culture-killing" teachers, a common result is driving Baby Boomers from SIG schools. In an effort to build a team of dynamic, usually young and inexperienced teachers, the tendency is to muzzle veteran teachers who might want to share their hard-earned professional judgments with the rookies.

By the way, one piece of advice that often horrifies "reformers" is the wisdom of veterans who warn young teachers not to burn themselves out. After all, the key to producing rapid and transformative change is supposed to be the refusal to accept "excuses" and to do "whatever it takes!" In my experience, the prohibition of "excuses" tends to morph into a ban on explanations, and it can outlaw the honest exchange of information.

Worse, in my experience, the demands of "reformers" that everyone must be "on the same page" tends to drive the exchange of ideas from schools. When prescriptive models of school improvement are imposed from above, adults are coerced into censoring their professional judgments. Before long, ideas are driven from the classroom by unchecked pressure to focus solely on basic skills to jack up test scores.

The school turnaround experiment was inspired by the business turnaround movement. Its drama captured the imaginations of innovators with little or no experience in inner city schools. Perhaps that explains why they overlooked some fundamental questions. Why would they think that gambling billions of dollars in a relatively few schools would produce the greater good for the greater number of poor children? Why would dumping millions of dollars on a school, for three years, while letting its underfunded neighbor struggle through the recession produce more good than the planned investment of those funds in both schools? Why gamble that the SIG windfall will be well-spent in schools that did not have the time to lay the foundation for sustainable improvements? Why in the world did SIG advocates believe that policies that might improve elementary schools, and that might improve secondary schools after the elementary schools that feed them are improved, were likely to work in the much tougher challenge of middle school? And, what about the temptation to dump the most difficult to educate students on neighborhood schools next to SIG schools?

The answer, I fear, is the same for school turnarounds as it is for the Bain Capitals of the business world. Due to extreme hubris, "reformers" were fixated on leveraging the turnaround process. Just as a hedge fund will take on debt and leverage it for huge profits, market-inspired "reformers" sought a silver bullet that could then be scaled up for all schools. When a venture capitalist fails and pulls the plug on a highly leveraged project, for better and for worse, the cost is just measured in money. When school "reforms" backfire, the costs are born by our most vulnerable children.

The first rule of school improvement should have been, "First, Do No Harm." For the last 20 years, however, non-educators have rolled the dice in the quest for "transformative change." They have tried to blow up "the status quo" in the faith that something better would naturally emerge. Because they were so convinced in the righteousness of their quest, they had no qualms in treating an unknown number of educators and students as collateral damage.

Accountability hawks, secure in their limited knowledge of the harsh realities of the inner city, will scoff at my suggestion but I will offer it anyway. What if the default option for school improvement was "win win," not "win lose" policies? Of course, we should fire adults who are not doing their job, but what if we focused on helping the rest of us to do our jobs better? What if we did not begin by imposing severe harm on our schools and our educational values, so that educators did not have to dig themselves into a hole that they must crawl out of before they build better schools? Above all, what if the first question asked by "reformers" was whether they would want their mandates imposed on their own children, as well as poor children of color?

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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 n...