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School Turnaround Group Aims to Help States, Districts


It was just two years ago that folks from the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute came to EdWeek to give us a preview of the school turnaround framework they were about to unveil. It called for a cooperative effort among state, district, and school-level officials to bring in turnaround specialists to work with partners who would provide services to chronically underperforming schools.

At the time, Bill Guenther, the president and founder of Mass Insight, and his team were talking with state school boards in Washington and Illinois about becoming pilot sites. They'd also just begun working to figure out how much talent was available in the market to do this sort of work in schools. In other words, there was not yet much cachet for doing the kind of dramatic overhauling of schools that Mass Insight was arguing would be necessary.

Now, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan making turning around the worst schools one of four non-negotiable priorities in the federal government's unprecedented investment in public schools, Mass Insight finds itself with tons of cachet, and bucks too. Both the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have ponied up cash to support this work. (Disclosure: both foundations also support Education Week.)

Today, Mass Insight announced a new initiative called the School Turnaround Strategy Group. Actually, work has been under way for months on this initiative, which will have the group working directly with states and some of their school districts on turning around clusters of low-performing schools. This formal "launch" comes just two days after Duncan rolled out the proposed rules for awarding $650 million in innovation grants to school districts and the nonprofits that partner with them on reform initiatives.

Guenther told DD that Mass Insight is working out formal agreements with six states, and talking regularly with six others, but he wouldn't yet disclose them. Funny aside: Guenther called DD this morning from outside the U.S. Dept. of Ed. headquarters, where he was watching Sec. Duncan shoot hoops. Guenther was in town to meet with Duncan, who called Mass Insight's school turnaround framework the "Bible" on the topic.

Heading up the Mass Insight effort is Justin Cohen, who most recently worked for Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in the District of Columbia public schools. In a letter introducing the new initiative, Cohen describes "partnership zones" that will set aside a group of schools to operate more flexibly and with "lead" partnership organizations that will be in charge of staffing schools and integrating their academic and student support services. Here's the full list and biographies of folks working on this effort.

It certainly seems like Mass Insight will be well-positioned to get a piece of the innovation grants, with state and district partners already lined up and financial backing from private philanthropy.


Having been involved with school turnaround groups before, I question business groups coming in with a bold new plan without community consensus and bridge building. Experienced educators cannot be left out of planning and implementation.
Until there is an amalgamation of 21st Century technology and individualized learning techniques, successful school turnarounds are not going to happen.

As a national consultant and reform specialist I have dealt with at least 40 to 50 different constructs for identifying "improvement" or "enhancement" efforts in the schools. Each construct has had its core of meaning and well-intentioned focus or thrust. Subject matter specialization in math and science after Sputnik, humanization in recognition of under-served populations, individualization to differentiate diverse learners in the classroom, computer-assisted teaching and learning, competency-based education, assessment-driven improvement strategies, charter initiatives, NCLB, and the turnaround framework that characterizes Secretary Duncan's improvement construct. These items comprise the short list! Clearly, there is nothing wrong with re-invigorating the mindsets and energies of educators; yet, there is something faulty about thinking that an entire system for turning about schools can be imported from an outside group of purveyors that promises reform. What will be their focus or thrust: leadership, instruction, curriculum, assessment, technology, site-based research and formative assessment-based improvement? Will it be all of these? Will it be the promotion of inspired teaching or exemplary achievement? Or, will it simply be the management of federal funds to encourage on-site visits, discussions, pilot projects, et cetera. There are many ways for state offices of education to do needs assessments and develop reform proposals with some outside facilitative assistance, but it does not have to include a wholesale approach that shifts responsibility and ownership to a third-party structure that reinvents a metaphoric burst that in so many cases turns out to be "a popcorn approach" to reform, each new kernel that flowers is quickly replaced by another until the batch trickles into a mound of expended efforts. There are many exciting and creative ways to inspire renewed and improved efforts in the schools, but all of those efforts require some very basic questions at the beginning: What is it that we are trying to turn around; what is the most serious problem in this state (or district) as opposed to that state (or district); should we address some of the most fundamental problems like truancy, school dropout rates, student achievement; or, is the real problem beyond our reach until parents, administrators, board members, students, and teachers along with community organizations "decide" that they will collaborate to motivate, inspire, support, and coalesce the resources/alternatives that will engender ownership locally for its own constituencies? To sum up, any serious attempt at school reform needs to explore a lengthy back story that illuminates in traditional S.W.O.T. terms, what the various strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are within a state (or district) as well as a meta-analysis of how previous reform efforts succeeded or failed in bringing about a more desirable future for our children and youth through the schools.

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  • Dr. Clinton R. Bunke: As a national consultant and reform specialist I have dealt read more
  • curious1970: Having been involved with school turnaround groups before, I question read more