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High School Turnaround: A Lively (But Friendly) Argument


Last week, I blogged about a Las Vegas high school that earned honors from the state of Nevada for being a "high achieving exemplary turnaround" school because its test scores have soared. Though its graduation rate is 55 percent, that doesn't disqualify it from earning honors under the state's accountability system. I raised a question about the state system's definitions.

Well, I got an earful from Mike Klonsky, a longtime Chicago education activist whom I've interviewed and quoted many times over the years. He argued in a blog post of his own that schools can improve a lot without the wholesale staff housecleaning advocated by so many "turnaround" advocates. He pointed to Valley High as an example. So I guess my post about it hit a nerve.

He scolded me for giving "no credit" to the teachers at Valley High for the hard work they've obviously done to help its students read and do math proficiently. "Shame on you," he said.

"I guess you and I just differ on what 'turnaround' means," Klonsky wrote. "To me it means, if you're driving south and you should be going north, first you stop the car. Then you turn it in the opposite direction and start heading north as fast as you can." He noted the big test-score gains and said, "Do you know of any rich kids' schools or selective enrollment high schools that have made gains like that? ... And to think they did it with a huge influx of immigrant students and a decrease of white kids from 50% to 15% of school population. I say, buy those teachers a beer to cool 'em off in that hot desert sun."

In the spirit of friendly debate, I wrote back to Klonsky and pointed out that I had indeed praised the big test-score gains as a significant accomplishment. (I will allow here that perhaps I didn't trumpet that success enough. So let me pause and say the gains at Valley High are truly impressive, and worthy of praise.)

But I'm still stuck on the part of the story that has to do with a state accountability system honoring a school that graduates only 55 percent of its students. That troubles me. It's not new news, of course. Many a wonk has pointed out that No Child Left Behind permits states to low-ball their academic goals. So while the test-score gains at Valley are impressive, and obviously signify a lot of hard work and staff devotion to the students, the fact that the school is being honored while losing nearly half its kids is still troubling to me.

So Klonsky weighed back in with this:

"What does the state's arbitrary definition of a high performing school have to do with anything? Do you think that if the state demanded that 90% of the school's students graduate on time in order to be ordained "high performing" (with no accounting for kids/parents living conditions, ELL, school resources, etc...), or even threatened the whole staff with firing and replacement with TFAers, Valley's grad rate would have risen? Do you think the fact that only half their kids graduate on time (higher that the average predominantly Latino high school) results from the whip not being cracked hard enough?

"Huge mega high schools with big low-income/immigrant populations have lower graduation rates. That's a fact. It's why, for example, Florida, with many of the largest high schools and ELL concentrations in the nation, has the lowest completion rate. If you want to change the latter, you have to change the former—not just raise the graduation standard a few points.

"That whole way of thinking about accountability is topsy-turvy. Reminds me of NCLB's dictum that all students will be above average by 2014. My advice (it's free of course and I don't expect you to follow): Start from concrete analysis of concrete conditions rather than from definitions. Use your gifts and your column to write more about the real conditions educators are facing in schools like Valley High and credit them directly (not just a passing "impressive test scores" when they accomplish things that their arm-chair critics, and accountability bean counters could only dream of."

Then he invited me to settle it over a beer. But since he's in Chicago and I'm in Washington, D.C., we'll have to wait on that one.

I invite you all to jump in with contributions to our prickly (but very collegial) exchange.


If I understand your previous posting correctly, the graduation rate has climbed 15 percent in the last 2-3 years. That, too, is nothing to sneeze at--let's hope the trend continues. One should also make allowances, I think, for schools with high proportions of ELL students who take longer than 4 years--and sometimes longer than 5 years--to graduate. Some of these students come to the school with almost no English skills and limited formal schooling.

A principal at a highly-honored high school serving large numbers of English language learners--some with only a few years of prior education--once explained to me that the school tries to hold on to its students "as long as possible" to ensure that they leave the high school with a truly strong foundation. That principal noted that schools get penalized for this strategy.

Actually, Catherine, Valley High hardly received any accolades at all. One mention in the local press. Check it out.

The economy, especially Clark County housing foreclosures (among the highest in the nation)probably has a much bigger impact on test scores and drop-out rates than anything done within the school itself.

Teachers deserve credit for doing what they can.

It seems to me that in discussing school reform in general and the even widr=er concept of school turnaround, we miss some key elements, What exactly are we attempting to reform, and why does it need reformation? Test results and graduation rates are bandied about as measures of success, butthere is very little discussion of what was actually achieved, other than higher scores on exams that may be repeated until successfully passed, and graduation rates that are inadequately measured at best.
On the one hand, we have students apparently being undereduacted and lost in complex school systems, yet these same students are capable of technological achievements that are mind boggling to most teachers. Former so-so students that could not seem to grasp the concepts of algebra and calculus, are able to somehow digitally edit sixty hours of film footage into a one hour sequencial action. They can cut and paste action and dialogue, even reproduce dialogue and allign it with the footage, all using a computer and software designed by yet another so-so high school student.
Students in alternative ed. sites are capable of regularly defeating internet blocks to browse through social networking sites on the internet. Seemingly unteachable students are capable of gathering and scattering information through text on devices concealed in their pockets. There ae also the drop outs that somehow manage to measure, cut and distribute smaller quantities of illegal subsatnces, calculating the sales price necessary to cover their own expenses.
What is lost is the actual fact that despite eaxm scores, despite drop out rates and alternative diploma programs, children are learning constantly, and at an even faster pace then the generations that preceeded them. The only real questions are what are they learning now, and what should they be learning?

I agree with much of what has been said here. Regardless to the reason, I am also troubled by a school receiving such accolades with a 55% graduation rate. That may be a huge improvement but the implication of the award is that they have completed the turnaround, not making major strides toward a complete turnaround. There is a major difference there particulary in a world that gets so much information via soundbites.

We, however, are dealing with a very complex issue and its easy to place credit and/or blame on the teachers and other school site personnel. There is a systemic problem with public education that needs to be addressed more substantially: How can a "one size fits all" federal approach to education solve the problem when we as parents know that we cannot effectively even raise two children in the same manner? These approaches force teachers to teach to the test. That is not the kind of learning we need in the 21st century.

For the most part, our public education system incentivises average (if not mediocricy)by not giving principals the means to financially reward excellent teachers.

Because the education industry has promoted the notion that teachers are universally overworked and underpaid tend to create an atmosphere where it is more and more difficult to get teachers to "take on one more thing", even if that "one more thing" would ultimately make their teaching experience more rewarding. I am not saying it's solely the teachers' fault. Effective educators are creative in their approach to reaching kids. The system often, through its mandates, stifles that creativity. We must create a culture that allows us to work hard and SMART.

Valley High is to be commended for its significant improvements, including in its graduation rate. However, virtually every comment praising the school and mitigating the graduation rate issue implies low expectations for immigrant and English learner students. I doubt anyone would be satisfied with a graduation rate of 55% for white middle and upper class students. We shouldn't be for immigrant students either.

If we want to ensure they have the same post high school opportunities as students from more affluent schools and backgrounds, we need to do more. What bothers me the most are the excuses and justifications for the low graduation rates. Does anyone else think this is condescending and patronizing and dare I say it even prejudicial? Immigrant students in higher performing schools and in schools that have truly turned around can and do successfully graduate and end up with the ability to go to college or into a career rather than be consigned to a low wage future.

Whether there is agreement about how the state classifies successful schools or not, anyone who accepts lower graduation rates for "those students" is revealing their unstated bias.

I do not know if this is true nation wide or not but I believe students can drop out legally at 16 years old.

Lower the dropout rate by having kids graduate by 16 or raise the legal age to drop out to 18 or when they finish high school.

Respectfully, changing the age for graduation of dropping out in NO way substantially addresses the problems. I agree 100% with Linda. A 45% drop out rate is in no way acceptable, anywhere. These students are able to learn. The education industry needs to develop ways of inspiring and teaching more effectively and the government (particularly at the federal level) needs to minimize its incursion.

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Recent Comments

  • David R. Sears: Respectfully, changing the age for graduation of dropping out in read more
  • Mike Christman: I do not know if this is true nation wide read more
  • Linda Diamond: Valley High is to be commended for its significant improvements, read more
  • David R. Sears: I agree with much of what has been said here. read more
  • Bob Frangione: It seems to me that in discussing school reform in read more




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