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What, Exactly, Does School 'Turnaround' Mean?

That, to me, was the key question raised, but not really answered, at an edu-salon convened yesterday by the Progressive Policy Institute.

And the question didn't come from any skeptic on whether or not turning low-performing schools around is an achievable goal. It came from Justin Cohen, who as the president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, is working closely with educators in a half-dozen states on this very difficult endeavor.

With $3.5 billion in stimulus-funded Title I School Improvement Grants flowing to the states and local districts to fix chronically low-performing schools, U.S.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team at the Education Department have focused heavily on how you turn schools around, and are requiring one of four ways to do it. Their four endorsed school-improvement models are also part of the Obama administration's blueprint for renewing ESEA. (Those models, of course, have been gaining more detractors lately, especially inside the halls of Congress.)

But, as Cohen rightly points out, there's been little to no discussion or agreement about what a "turned around" school looks like. Cohen, who thinks the ESEA blueprint is an improvement over the current No Child Left Behind law, says to make it even better, there must be a definition of what constitutes success in this pursuit of turning around the nation's worst schools.

"There's nothing about when do we declare victory," Cohen said. "What does it mean to say we've turned a school around? Let's agree on what we're measuring."

Of course, "closing the achievement gap" is the answer everyone can agree on, and we've heard Secretary Duncan talk about "dramatic" and "breakthrough" change, but nothing that really defines, concretely, what "turn around" means. That high schools currently graduating fewer than 60 percent of their kids improve that rate to 90 percent? Or that middle schools where 10 percent of 8th graders are reading on grade level improve that proficiency rate to 60 percent?

Besides Cohen, the expert lineup on turnarounds at the panel included District of Columbia Chancellor Michelle Rhee; David Cicarella, the president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, the local AFT affiliate in New Haven, Conn., who was a stand-in for AFT president Randi Weingarten; Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.; and Jordan Meranus from the New Schools Venture Fund.

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