Vying for turnaround dollars

With hundreds of millions of federal dollars allocated to turning around failing schools, dozens of companies with little or no experience are portraying themselves as school turnaround experts, reports the New York Times.

“Many of these companies clearly just smell the money,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy.

“This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans,” said Rudy Crew, a former New York City schools chancellor with his own consulting company.  Crew has signed a turnaround contract with Pueblo, Colorado that includes a performance guarantee: If scores don’t improve significantly, he doesn’t get paid his full fee.

School turnarounds often fail, pointed out Tim Cawley of Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit leading several turnaround efforts in Chicago. A “complete re-set” is needed, he said.

Usually that means installing a new principal and a newly committed teaching staff, invigorating the school’s culture with high expectations and a no-nonsense discipline, adopting a rigorous curriculum, and carrying out regular testing to determine what has been learned and what needs to be retaught, Mr. Cawley said.

In contrast, many new groups seeking contracts are hoping merely to bring in a new curriculum or retrain some teachers, he said.

“We call that turnaround lite,” Mr. Cawley said.

In a June 2009 speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “We need everyone who cares about public education to get into the business of turning around our lowest-performing schools.”  Later Duncan said he hoped high-quality, nonprofit charter school management groups, like the KIPP network, would join the effort.

But “most successful nonprofit charter operators preferred starting new schools to overhauling failing ones,” Justin Cohen, a turnaround strategist at MassInsight, told the Times.

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  1. The truth is that there aren’t many Lead Turnaround Partners out there. And, those with experience and a track record of successful school improvement are even fewer. While it’s difficult to build a supply of partners to take on this work (especially before the funding and policies exist to implement), the extreme demand that is now present in virtually every state and the lack of strong partners is becoming, and will continue to be, a major problem.

    The bottom line is that “children first” should be at the forefront of every decision made relating to the creation of preferred provider lists, selection of partners, and the development of contracts. If we don’t hold the adults accountable for results, it’s hard to hold kids accountable for their results.

    For more information, including potential solutions, see my recent blog post.


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