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Tips on Selecting a Turnaround Provider

I'm occasionally asked by district officials for a few words of advice on how to proceed when dealing with providers plying their turnaround wares. Given the priority attached to turnarounds nowadays, and the School Improvement Grant funds that districts have to spend, this is no small question.

In policy circles, there's plenty of debate about whether this effort to improve low-performing schools will work as hoped or will go down as an expensive failure. On this count, history counsels caution. In the 1970s, millions of dollars were spent on "effective schools research" to find out what made good schools click. The answers were pretty predictable (strong leadership, professional teaching culture, and so on). The trick turned out to be in duplicating those features elsewhere. In the past decade, research on the federal Comprehensive School Reform program found that it did nothing to improve low-performing schools. And No Child Left Behind's "school improvement" measures have disappointed.

This history gives cause for skepticism when it comes to anyone or any organization claiming to know just how to turn around persistently low-performing schools. Indeed, schooling has long been filled with vendors peddling fads or overpriced, jargon-filled pseudo-expertise. So, the real question is not whether test scores spiked but whether vendors are taking care to position these schools for sustained success.

How to tell if a provider might represent a good investment? First, it's good to be cautious about making sense of short-term results, whether they're terrific or disappointing. Short-term bumps in test scores are less significant than whether outcomes like attendance, student achievement, and school safety are showing steady improvement. After all, some folks have much success juicing scores through test prep or other machinations; but these rarely add up to real, sustainable improvement. Meanwhile, lasting progress can take time.

Many providers develop strategies based on getting outside experts or former local administrators to mentor, or coach, principals and teachers. The trick is that reforms which depend on new resources--as is the case with coaching--are like a sugar rush. They may yield improvements so long as the coaches are around, only to peter out once the extra money is gone. More to the point, the track record for efforts to improve trouble schools primarily through coaching or "professional development" is pretty dismal. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Science has reported that hardly any careful studies of these strategies even exist, and that there's no "valid" evidence for their effectiveness.

Ultimately, School Improvement Grant dollars should serve as a springboard, not a crutch. Smart interventions will ensure that changes are being made at the affected schools that will equip them to succeed when the extra funds are gone. The schools should be busy working to rethink how they engage families, attract and make the fullest use of talented teachers, take advantage of technology, create data systems to monitor and support student performance, and work to shift operational funds to where they'll matter most. If providers are helping with that work, they may well represent a smart investment. If it's not, any short-term benefits are likely to follow them out of town.

Note: A version of this column previously appeared in The Pueblo Chieftain.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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