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Ed. Dept. Offers Ideas, Not Answers, in Turnaround Report

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Thanks to a new guidebook from the Department of Education, here are four steps to improving chronically low-performing schools:

"Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership ...
Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction ...
Make visible improvements early in the school turnaround process (quick wins) ... [and]
Build a committed staff."

The panel of researchers that wrote the checklist said these are the best ideas they've found. But they warn that completing the list may not necessarily yield gains in student improvement.

"The recommendations in this guide are based on a collection of case studies of low-performing schools that improved student achievement in one to three years. The panel feels compelled to emphasize that the level of evidence is low because none of the studies examined for this practice guide is based on a research methodology that yields valid causal inference."

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The "level of evidence" for these recommendations was reported as "low." This was especially true on it's weakest recommendation, focus on instruction. This recommendation was based on 10 schools, and I didn't find how many of them were secondary schools. (Only 13 of the turnarounds they studied were middle or high schools.)

A much better study, The Turnaround Challenge reached the opposite conclusion. But actually, the words of this guide didn't contradict the Turnaround Challenge. Since NCLB everyone and their dog have recommended an instructional focus - which of course is the easiest part of reform. Some schools who use that approach are bound to succeed.

A better explanation is that a focus on instruction, on data OF ALL SORTS INCLUDING DISCIPLINE, collaboration, dynamic leadership, and building a high quality staff all combined to build relationships. Building relationships, according to The Turnaround Challenge, was a more promising approach.

We should also rememeber an artificial advantage of an effort that focuses on instruction and data. In any team sport, if one side keeps score, they have an advantage. If a school has the money, the will, the talent, and the infrastructure to handle data, they have a huge advantage in SHOWING progress. On the other hand, I don't want to quibble. If you have that level of capacity, you ought to be able to improve student performance.

And the study was upfront in its disclaimers. My concern is that this guide will be turned into another set of Power Point presentations. Its the type of easy -or relatively easy - approach that is so attractive to central offices. The Ed Dept shouldn't have to break it down more, but I would have preferred reminders that were much more prominent of a) the experience of these few successes, and b)the tiny chances of successes resulting from reforms that focus on instruction.

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