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Turnaround Models: The Pathology of Failure

Sabrina Stevens Shupe was among the panelists at this week's Teachers' Letters to Obama Roundtable focused on "turnaround schools." She shared a very clear analysis of what is happening to these schools, and the way it impacts students and teachers. I asked her to share it with us. Here is her guest post.

Before I started working in low-performing schools, I shared the fairly common perception that the problems these schools had were largely the fault of their staff members. "Sure, it must be difficult to work in that kind of environment," I reasoned, "which is probably why they have such trouble retaining quality professionals." Once I decided to become a teacher and work in those schools, however, I was shocked by what I experienced. Though I considered myself well prepared to teach--I had a stellar education, prior experience as a non-classroom teacher in the same kinds of communities, and student-teaching experience in some top-notch private schools--I was completely unprepared for the other realities of working there.

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I simply couldn't believe some of the problems our school had. Fundamentally, these weren't staffing issues, but issues that resulted from putting staff members in a certain kind of situation. After leaving the school, I still suspected that what we'd experienced there might be some kind of freak anomaly. It was just too bizarre. But once I started listening to teachers in similar situations around the country, I realized that what happened there wasn't that uncommon. The stories I hear from teachers in schools that are either under consideration for a turnaround, or that have already experienced one kind (transformation) and are under consideration for more intervention, share six common elements.

1. A perception of failure, and labeling.
When a school has low-test scores or fails to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) for too many years in a row, they receive a label like "needs improvement," "persistently failing," or "failing." Once labeled, they are treated as though the label reflects a fundamental truth about the school. As many of us know, there are a lot of reasons why students may have poor test scores, and many of them have nothing to do with their teachers or schools. But the label is powerful, and it can trigger unwelcome interventions.

2. Taking academic shortcuts.

True transformation in a school takes years of hard work, realigning resources, and support from the surrounding community. But when schools are pressured to make changes immediately, and without additional support, there is a powerful temptation to cut corners. Gimmicks like pre-packaged and/or scripted curricula, as well as more testing and test-preparation, are some of the ways schools attempt to look like they're making big changes in order to escape sanctions.

Likewise, targeting certain students who are on the cusp of moving into the next proficiency level has more of a "payoff" for schools looking to increase their test scores. Perversely, the testing culture encourages teachers to ignore their neediest students, because they are so low that the amount they're likely to grow won't help them to qualify as proficient. The same goes for targeting certain parts of the curriculum that are more frequently tested. Teachers are encouraged to be strategic about how they deal with those students and those parts of the curriculum, instead of trying to address each student and the whole curriculum.

3. An increasingly burdensome workload.

The paradox of the gimmicks and shortcuts is that it actually makes more work for staff members. Teachers and administrators end up spending more time on forms and reporting student data to their superiors, which either adds to their workload or supplants part of it, depending on how much energy and "free" time the individual has. Teachers also have to spend time and energy readjusting the curriculum to fit whatever time is left after testing is over, remediating for students who struggle to keep up with the quicker pace, and addressing behavior problems that arise when students are bored and frustrated.

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4. A toxic work environment
Chronic stress can bring out the worst in people. Staff members may start turning on each other, blaming different people or groups for the school's situation instead of cooperating with each other and looking for workable solutions. Some people may also start doing dishonest things, like changing grades or test scores. They rationalize their attempts to game the system by telling themselves that they're doing what they have to do to protect students from harmful interventions, or to keep their staff members' jobs, or to keep the school open.

Meanwhile, all that stress takes a toll on people's health. I've seen and talked to many teachers who have struggled with things like getting sick more often, being diagnosed with stress-related illnesses like IBS, abusing alcohol, having dangerously high blood pressure, and so on. The kids suffer along with the adults as their distracted teachers become less effective, and when they see that staff members are unhappy (or directly bear the brunt of adults' frustration).

5. Harassment and retaliation
Most people in the situation will see how dysfunctional and counterproductive it is, but it will be difficult to challenge what's going on. When only a few people go out on a limb, they may face consequences for doing so. Harassment and retaliation are startlingly common in schools. Teachers who don't go along with the new regime might experience everything from losing certain materials or privileges, to losing their jobs entirely. When other teachers witness those consequences, they learn to keep quiet. But feeling powerless is demoralizing, and it makes teachers even less effective.

6. Failure
Those shortcuts, plus all of the distractions that limit teachers' and schools' ability to focus on the core mission of educating students, actually create more failure. Students may move on to the next grade level with serious gaps in their understanding, because they weren't given a fair chance to learn everything they needed to know. That will make things even harder for these students and their future teachers, who will have to work ever harder to catch up.

This doesn't have to happen. The federal government currently requires "failing" schools to choose from among four rigid choices in order to make change. But they could just as easily offer more flexibility, so that local actors can craft sustainable solutions tailored to the specific problems their schools have. Some schools may require more teacher release time, so teachers can plan lessons or interventions together, or receive more professional development. Others may benefit from updated facilities, or more supplementary staff to handle students' psychological or health concerns. Some schools (or districts) may require more oversight to ensure that they're meeting students' needs in an equitable way, and are holding themselves to the highest professional standards.

And most schools could benefit from more reasonable expectations of what they can and can't control, and more realistic timelines for creating meaningful change. After all, effectively preparing students for a rapidly changing world is tough, important work. We owe it to our students, and ourselves, to create conditions that give us the best chance for success.

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Sabrina Stevens Shupe is a teacher who has worked in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. Her most recent teaching experience in Denver caused her to take a year off from teaching and launch the Failing Schools Project. The goals of the project are to empower teachers, students, and parents in so-called "failing" schools to share their thoughts on what it's really like to work and learn in them, and to promote alternative way of thinking about and approaching the problems these schools face. You can download and listen to her presentation, including her slides, here. Her portion begins one hour and four minutes into the recorded session.

Note: This blog carried a proposed alternative to current policies several weeks ago, offered by Congresswoman Judy Chu.

What do you think about the pattern described here? Does this reflect your experience? Are there better ways to help struggling schools?


Images provided by Sabrina Stevens Shupe, used with permission.

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