Turnaround … not so much

“Turnaround” schools didn’t turn very far, despite billions of dollars in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, reports the U.S. Education Department. Two thirds of low-performing schools showed some improvement;  one third got even worse. What Ed Week calls “mixed results,” Andy Smarick labels “disappointing but completely predictable.”

Twenty-five percent of schools made “double-digit” gains in reading and 15 percent in math, which could mean a 10 percent gain from a very low base, Smarick points out.  “They are schools that went from really, really, really low-performing to really, really low-performing.”

“Single-digit” gains — as little as 1 percent — were reported by 40 percent of schools  in math and 49 percent in reading.

Yes, it’s only the first year, but the first year is the easiest, writes Smarick.

 Historically, schools subject to “turnaround” attempts are so low-performing that improvement efforts often see early gains. These schools are in such dire straits that initial quick-win efforts like instituting a school-wide curriculum or bringing a modicum of order to classrooms will bring about a bump in performance. The problem in the past has been sustaining and building on the gains made in year one. I can’t recall a study of previous turnarounds that showed so many schools falling farther behind after interventions.

Some SIG schools were improving before they received the grants, but then slid back, notes Ed Week.

 Twenty-six percent of schools in the program were on a trajectory to improve their math scores, but declined once they entered the SIG program, while 28 percent of schools where math scores had been slipping began to show improvement after getting the grant. In reading, 28 percent of schools that had been showing gains before SIG actually lost ground once they got the grant. A smaller percentage of schools, 25 percent, had been showing sluggish improvement in reading before the grant and began to improve once they got the funding.

So it looks like a wash — a very expensive wash.

Focus on elementary schools, where there’s a chance of success, suggests RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. Students are too far behind by middle school.

Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

Districts rarely pick SIG’s strongest turnaround model, which calls for “shutting down dropout factories and failure mills, and then replacing them with traditional public and charter schools,” Biddle writes.

Turn around, end up in same place

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to “turn around” 5,000 low-performing schools. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to save failing schools, writes Andy Smarick in Education Next. Millions of dollars have been spent trying with little success.

Despite years of experience and great expenditures of time, money, and energy, we still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent.

What does work? Closing bad schools and starting new ones from scratch, he writes. Operators of high-performing, high-poverty schools prefer to start fresh so they can create a new culture, a NewSchools Venture Fund study found.

Tom Torkelson, CEO of the high-performing IDEA network agrees: “I don’t do turnarounds because a turnaround usually means operating within a school system that couldn’t stomach the radical steps we’d take to get the school back on track. We fix what’s wrong with schools by changing the practices of the adults, and I believe there are few examples where this is currently possible without meddling from teacher unions, the school board, or the central office.”

Chris Barbic, founder and CEO of the stellar YES Prep network, says that “starting new schools and having control over hiring, length of day, student recruitment, and more gives us a pure opportunity to prove that low-income kids can achieve at the same levels as their more affluent peers. If we fail, we have only ourselves to blame, and that motivates us to bring our A-game every single day.”

When Duncan ran Chicago schools, he closed persistently low-performing schools. But elementary students didn’t benefit, because they were transferred to other low-performing schools, reports the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.  The only students who showed progress were the small number who moved to high-performing schools.

Update: New York City wants to close as many as a dozen failed schools and turn them into charter schools, reports the New York Post. But charter operators worry they won’t have flexibility to run the new schools, said Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York State Charter Schools Association. “It makes no sense to try to turn around a school [while keeping] all the impediments that got it into trouble in the first place,” he said.

No miracle at Locke

One year after low-performing Locke High was taken over by Green Dot, the school’s scores remain low. On the plus side, 38 percent more students took the state exam, notes a Los Angeles Times editorial. More kids are in school; truancy and campus crime rates are way down.

. . . by enrolling all the students within its attendance boundaries — including the perpetual truants, gangbangers and likely dropouts along with the honors students — Locke accepted the same challenges faced by L.A.’s more troubled public schools.

Green Dot and other successful charter operators should stick to what they do best — starting new schools —  writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.

I think it’s too soon to give up on the Locke turnaround: It will take more than a year to make a difference in achievement for students who fell way, way behind long before Green Dot took over the high school. But if next year’s ninth and 10th graders show no improvement . . .

Sotomayor's choice

Sonia Sotomayor’s personal experience — her mother sent her to Catholic schools — may shape her decisions on school choice, writes Andy Smarick in The American.

Of course, it remains an open question how Judge Sotomayor would apply her Catholic school experiences should she be confirmed and face a school voucher case. On the one hand, she might fully appreciate the invaluable gift she was given by being able to attend Cardinal Spellman High in the Bronx. She might reflect on today’s low-income urban parents’ hopes for great schools for their kids. She might consider the heretofore futile efforts to adequately improve traditional city school systems and the tragic impact on students growing up in public housing units similar to those of her childhood.

On the other hand, Barack Obama, who attended private school and sends his children to private school, hasn’t backed school vouchers for low-income Washington, D.C. children.

Duncan backs merit pay at NEA

Teachers booed and hissed when Education Secretary Arne Duncan advocated merit pay at the National Education Association convention in San Diego.  They didn’t like “talk of reform to seniority and tenure systems, either,” reports Teacher Beat’s Stephen Sawchuck. 

I wonder if Duncan had prepared his seemingly ad-libbed line for when the booing started: “You can boo, but don’t throw any shoes, please.” And I’m pretty sure most of the delegates had gotten their vocal chords ready, too.

. .  . Also, large parts of the speech seemed to key directly off of the stimulus legislation. When Duncan talked about seniority putting some teachers in schools and classrooms they’re not prepared for, well, that gets to the equitable-distribution-of-teachers language in the stimulus.When he talked about the poor state of evaluations, well, that lines up to the language that will require states and districts to report the number and percentage of teachers scoring at each performance level on local evaluation instruments.

On Flypaper, Andy Smarick gives the speech a good review, with special praise for this: 

A recent report from the New Teacher Project found that almost all teachers are rated the same. Who in their right mind really believes that?

 Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense. But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.

Teachers also booed a mention of Green Dot, says Eduwonk, who compares that to hating Santa Claus.

Education Sector is hosting an online discussion of teachers’ work and teachers’ unions. 

Turning around the bottom 1%

The Obama administration will fund efforts to “turn around” 5,000 failing schools over the next five years, says Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Duncan said that might mean firing an entire staff and bringing in a new one, replacing a principal or turning a school over to a charter school operator.

. . . “If we turn around just the bottom 1 percent, the bottom thousand schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children,” Duncan said.

States would decide how to spend the turnaround money, which could be as much as $4.5 billion.

Don’t waste billions of dollars trying to do the impossible, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.  Turnarounds rarely work.  What’s necessary is the ruthlessness to close failing schools and open new schools.

Do you plan to invest billions of dollars to try to invent a reliable, scalable strategy for fixing long-broken schools? Or are we going to humbly accept the clear lesson from 40 years of turnaround efforts in education (and even longer in the private sector), and recognize that closures and new starts are the way to go?

So far, the department’s turnaround ideas include both traditional fix-it activities and closing and reopening schools, Smarick points out.

First, educate the kids

It’s possible to create a good school for low-income students without parent involvement, argues Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Parents will support the school when it proves itself, not before.

Low-income parents may often be distracted just trying to make a living, but they know what works. Once they see a school keeping its promises, they provide the kind of support found in suburban schools. But it’s important to remember that good schooling must come before parental support, not the other way around.

Poorly educated parents may not know how to support their children’s learning. It’s a role they need to learn from their kids’ teachers and school leaders.

Flypaper’s Andy Smarick agrees with Mathews and points to the Education Next article on paternalistic schools.