We know how to turn schools around

We Know How to Turn Schools Around, writes Allen Odden in Education Week. We just don’t do it very often.

The bottom line is that the country knows how to turn around low-performing education systems, dramatically boost student learning, and close achievement gaps. And in most cases, the funds to accomplish these goals are already in the system. The problem isn’t funding, it is having the will and persistence to fix the system, drawing on knowledge that exists now.

“The first step is to create a sense of urgency” by looking at performance data, Odden writes. Step two is to set ambitious goals that go far beyond “adequate yearly progress.”

Turnaround schools must “throw out the old curriculum and adopt new textbooks, create new curriculum programs, and start to build, over time, a common understanding of effective instruction.”

Odden recommends “a battery of assessments, including formative and diagnostic assessments, common end-of-curriculum-unit assessments, and benchmark assessments.” The goal is to “enable teachers to make midcourse corrections and to get students into interventions earlier.”

He also suggests: quality professional development, extended learning time, “dense” instructional leadership and a focus on recruiting top talent.

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Comments

  1. I smell a charlatan.

    “Based on research” –what research? Which schools have been turned around using Odden’s prescriptions? Name one.

    None of this sounds fresh in the slightest. Intensive testing, intrusive administrators, trashing everything old and replacing it with new (not BETTER) stuff, firing teachers (because we know the current crop is mostly bad)… This is the current educational “leadership” orthodoxy in America. This is the unproven and unsound but plausible-sounding nonsense that superintendents lap up at their “leadership” conferences.

    Is this what the best teachers in America would prescribe?

  2. I liked the article. We are implementing parts of it (like the PLC’s and common assessments) at our school (which is an “excelling” school but could be doing better) because our new principal and superintendent feel that it is worthwhile and can help the students achieve. The only major disagreement I had with the article was a small reference to “new textbooks.” For the life of me, I can not understand the rationale behind spending so much time and money adopting new textbooks for every subject area every ten years or so. Get rid of textbooks altogether, invest in laptops for every student, make sure the campus has wireless internet capabilities, and the students can access a wealth of information suited to their individual learning style and cognitive ability at any time. Seems like a no brainer to me.

  3. The only way achievement gaps will be closed is by setting the bar so low that it is meaningless and/or preventing the top kids from performing anywhere near their potential. Both ability and interest exist on a bell curve and the best that can be done is to move the whole curve to the right.

  4. Swede,

    Don’t you find it a bit worrisome that he doesn’t name one school that has done these things and shown (valid) double-digit gains? How do we know this is not sheer charlatanry, albeit plausible-sounding? Should we take his prescriptions on faith?

  5. Ben F,

    The article is a short one; he is a professor at a major university so he does research and has surely published longer papers on the topic which include the desired examples that you referred to. I don’t know, though. I do accord him a measure of respect and faith as he is a specialist in these matters. However, I take it with a massive grain of salt since experts can often be wrong. I think that calling him a charlatan, however, is rather strong and hyperbolic. I would reserve judgement until some time has elapsed and we can compare those schools who have used his prescriptions and those that have not.

  6. Would you turn your child over to someone who runs the Strategic Management of Human Capital project

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Would you turn your child over to someone who runs the Strategic Management of Human Capital project?

    It would depend on what the alternative was.

  8. Can anyone out there name one dramatically “turned-around” school? I ask this in earnest. I’d like to find out what happened.

    My principal and superintendent are always urging us teachers to abandon punishments and rely exclusively on positive reinforcement. I ask my principal to name one middle school in the country that does what he prescribes. He cannot. Somehow this doesn’t faze him. These folks have their precious ideologies on which they build their careers, bamboozling the school boards that hire them. They are not interested in truth.

  9. I will suggest Madison Elementary which is part of the Long Beach Unified School District. From 2000 to 2008 the breakdown of CA API scores was as follows:

    Caucasion – 780 to 840
    Hispanic – 700 to 840
    African American – 620 to 780
    Economically Disadvantaged – 650 to 820

    An API above 800 in CA means that a school no longer has to make yearly progress goals.

  10. Interesting word choice — *battery* of assessments.

    In any case, simple does not equal easy. I am always suspect when no consideration is given to unintended consequences.

    Why do you need new textbooks? What, is Harcourt paying his salary? They’re all more or less the same. In urban districts, the issue is generally enough textbooks and getting the kids not to lose them faster than they can be replaced, not which texts. I don’t think he’s spent any time in the schools he thinks are simple to fix.

  11. Diane Ravitch was quoted recently challenging Arne Duncan as follows:

    “I would like to see the secretary point to a district where they have done — some district that has done what he recommends and where you can say, now, there’s a district that’s turned around.”

    Seems a fair challenge for Mr. Oddden as well.

  12. “dense” instructional leadership…

    Is this another one of those posts from The Onion?

  13. Scrooge McDuck says:

    Get rid of textbooks altogether, invest in laptops for every student, make sure the campus has wireless internet capabilities, and the students can access a wealth of information suited to their individual learning style and cognitive ability at any time. Seems like a no brainer to me.

    Gee, it’s all so simple.

  14. Scrooge-
    Agreed. That sounds like some powerful 21st century skills kool aid.

    Hmmm. Textbooks cost what, $75-100? Students might need books for what, 5 core classes? Thats $500 for a new set of books for each student. Now, unless a book is completely trashed it will at least last 4 years or so, so that reduces the per-year cost of books per student to $125 or so.

    A laptop would at least cost $500 (and that’s a basic model), and then there’s the cost of the technology infrastructure, IT help, and the software needed to go along. The resulting cost would be 2-3 times (minimum) what the cost of textbooks would be.

  15. SuperSub,

    If you check out the laptop section at Best Buy you’ll find that the basic model for PCs are going for around $200 these days. You’re also assuming that those PCs will only last for a year, while texts will last much longer. While computers don’t last as long as textbooks, they can last for several years. Additionally, most of the software students need in the classroom (web-browser, word processor, etc.) is available in a free, open-source format. You’re point regarding IT support and infrastructure costs is well taken.

    Are you also presuming that the value of textbooks as instructional/learning tools is the same value computers have in the classroom? Can computers provide to students opportunities worth the extra investment?

  16. It’d be nice if someone, somewhere demonstrated the value of computers in education in a manner which would convince the disinterested observer of their value.

    Oh yeah, it’d also be nice if proponents of the use of computers in education could provide some estimate of their value besides responding with shocked disbelief that anyone would question the value of computers in education. You know, something along the order of “attainment levels will increase by no less then ten percent” or some other measurable increment of value.

    All the enthusiastic hand-waving about children learning at their own pace and being the masters of their own educational voyage is getting a little old. Matter of fact, it was getting old in the 1980s. Now it’s just pathetic.

    But this topic isn’t about computers in education, it’s about “we know how to turn schools around” and we do. It’s done all the time. The problem is that no one much cares that the school’s been turned around besides the parents and the employees of the school. Outside the walls of the school there’s hardly ever as much enthusiasm for a turn-around as there is within the walls so when. When the district has to enforce some policy that destroys the high-performing school well, it’s just one of those things.

    So the secret to turning schools around isn’t the issue. The issue is to make turned-around schools important enough to emulate and to preserve.

  17. Nancy Hudak says:

    As to laptops in the classroom, Maine has had 1-to-1 for years now and there is some research showing their value. Check out: http://www2.umaine.edu/mepri/ and look for MLTI references.

  18. SuperSub,

    I really liked how you broke down the cost of a new textbook over four years and used that as your example of how much textbooks cost but then used the price of a computer (an inaccurate one at that) and did not break that down over five years but instead used the initial price as your cost for your comparison. Either you are purposefully being dishonest with your numbers because you have some weird axe to grind with new technology or you do not know how to do a cost benefit analysis. Either way, your credibility is shot. Nick James’ post also explained pretty clearly why your antipathy to investing in laptops is misguided and ill informed.

    Also, allen and Scrooge, if you are not familiar with how the business world, teenagers and even young children use computers and the internet pretty much daily to research, communicate, and design and develop papers, spreadsheets and other projects, then you really should research the benefits of having the internet and computers in classrooms in much more depth. You are behind the times.

  19. George Larson says:

    The problem with computers is not the initial cost compared to tetbooks, but their maintenance including the networks. Software must be updated regularly, staff must be trained and retrained and sensitive data must be protected. Businesses can spend well over $1000 per year per PC on these issues.

    Will the average 10 year old protect sensitive information? Will the school be responsible when he is not?

    One question I wonder about: if there are no books, will schools spend a fortune printing out pages because it can be easier and more convenient to read or edit paper than a screen?

  20. allen, you have a good point here: So the secret to turning schools around isn’t the issue. The issue is to make turned-around schools important enough to emulate and to preserve.

    One of the biggest things which often happens to turnaround schools is that the other principals in the district do their best to tear the turnaround school down so their schools don’t look so bad, instead of doing their best to emulate it. Preserving success is a huge challenge in education, because often it’s a year-to-year dynamic that depends upon the interaction of students, teachers, administration, parents, and the larger community. This dynamic changes from year to year, sometimes violently when drastic staff changes happen through retirement or budget cuts.

    George Larsen also raises a good point here: The problem with computers is not the initial cost compared to textbooks, but their maintenance including the networks.

    I was at my current school when we bought the laptops. Their utility has gone downhill over the past five years. Our current computer lab and laptop set are both showing the effects of age and heavy use with insufficient maintenance. Unless a district is willing to commit to maintenance and regular replacement schedules, the hassle is greater than the utility.

  21. Thanks Joycem but it isn’t the other principals that are the problem. Why would it be? It’s not as if the district superintendent is going to land on their desks wondering why they aren’t as good as the good school. In fact, the real problem is that there’s no pressure to emulate the good schools and if they disappear, well, so what?

    But when you do read about the good schools what they inevitably require is a tough, smart, lucky principal who’s capable of maintaining an unshakable focus on education. Not only is that an uncommon individual but there’s not much in the way of an effort to identify, promote and reward those individuals. A good principal, like a good teacher, had better be satisfied with the internal rewards of being a good principal or teacher because there are no professional rewards.

    Yeah Swede, I’m familiar with the business world and in the business world a vague “good things will happen” promise as a rationale for buying computers doesn’t make it. A 20% reduction in headcount or a 50% reduction in office equipment costs does make it and when the promise is made the results had better bear out the promise or someone has a bad Christmas. What’s the analogous, measurable promise made for the use of computers in education?

    There isn’t an analogous promise and therein lies at least part of the problem.

    But to get back to making schools good, the good schools are out there.

    They come and they go or they come and they stay but what they don’t do is make the lousy schools stand out. The good schools don’t create a harsh contrast for the lousy schools to endure. The lousy schools continue to sail blandly along, doing a bad job educating kids, untroubled by the existence of the good schools. As long as that situation remains unchanged good schools will remain a transient phenomenon exerting no influence over neighboring schools or public education.

  22. Also, allen and Scrooge, if you are not familiar with how the business world, teenagers and even young children use computers and the internet pretty much daily to research, communicate, and design and develop papers, spreadsheets and other projects

    But much of the business world is doing that without having been taught about computers while at school. And back when computers became widely spread in business even fewer people had been taught about them at school or at university.
    Business PCs, and the internet would never have taken off if people had had to study them at schools first before being able to use them.
    This is not to say that computer studies are a waste of time at school for all students. Just to say that they clearly aren’t essential for operating in the modern world.

  23. Allen–

    Portland Public Schools, Portland, Oregon. Look up Benson High School. My son was one of the last ones allowed in through a rigorous screening process. After that, admission was by lottery (due to NCLB issues) and, yes, it was pretty openly admitted that Benson was a target because principals at other, failing schools within the district claimed Benson was taking their best kids.

    It happens in other districts, all the time.

    It’s not as if the district superintendent is going to land on their desks wondering why they aren’t as good as the good school.

    Um, actually, yes, that does happen. It’s called test scores. Follow the budget process and see which schools get the most cuts–and which schools get the most money within a district. A school that’s doing well on statewide assessment gets cut more heavily than a struggling school. It’s in the best interest of the principal of a struggling school to tear down the turnaround school because there’s a strong financial interest to do so, in the world of intra-district budget wars.

    Seen it as both parent and teacher (and I’ll point out that I am not employed by Portland Public Schools, I was simply a PPS parent).

  24. That’s the Portland school district in Oregon. Most states have taken the more pragmatic approach of lowering standards so that AYP is being met with no obvious effort and no changes. Kind of like the Yoggi Berra approach to cutting up pizza.

    In most of the rest of the country, and certainly more widely before the advent of NCLB, there wasn’t any need to emulate or encourage good schools. In the big municipal school districts you have magnet schools to satisfy parents who make a nuisance of themselves, as well as provide at tax-payer expense, a private school for the local movers and shakers. But outside the walls of the magnet school there wasn’t any need to pursue excellence. If a school was pulled above average by an above-average principal that was peachy but there certainly wasn’t any pressing need to emulate them.

    So now we’ve got a clumsy and not too difficult to frustrate stab at accountability in NCLB and lo!, principals are acting as if looking like a good educator matters. Trouble is, they’re pretty new to the idea that professionals produce the results for which they’re hired so they take shortcuts. Surprise!

    What did you, or anyone, expect? That the noble educators wouldn’t cut corners and bend rules? Here’s the lesson in that phenomenon: they’re human beings. All the same shortcomings, all the same strengths as everyone else.

    The answer to that problem’s pretty mundane as well. When someone cuts corners make sure the corners return the favor. A criminal prosecution or two, a flurry of firings and the real cheeseballs will find something less demanding if not as remunerative as being an educator who educates.

    As for the schools that do well on statewide tests getting a budget reduction by the district, just what is it that a district does that makes it worth the resources it absorbs?

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