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Turning Around Is Hard (and Other Observations From the Federal Department of Obvious Conclusions)

The National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Educational Sciences, has just released a report entitled "State Capacity to Support School Turnaround." There is plenty to wade through, but I'm going to put on my Gross Oversimplification Hat and whack at the highlights.

The main question of the report is this: In 2009, the feds threw $3 billion dollars of stimulus money into School Improvement Grants in order to goose intervention models and generally get a bunch of failing schools to turn around. How did that turn out?

Answer: Not all that well.

Presumably the IES spent a bunch of time, money, and effort trying to explain why. Let me add my two cents to the mix.

Turnaround schools have been one of the Great White Whales of education reform for almost a decade. NCLB used AYP to sort out schools and to declare which ones needed to be turned around "or else." This gave turning around a bad name because NCLB, with its 100% of students above average goal, guaranteed that every school in America would be either failing or cheating. NCLB established that turning around a school was as much about satisfying bureaucratic fiat and paperwork and raising meaningless scores on bogus tests as it was about actually teaching students.

By the time Race To The Trough unleashed its Big Pile of Money, people who actually worked in schools had developed little love for the science of turnarounds. But still-- with all that money being thrown at low-performing schools, shouldn't the feds have gotten something for their trouble? Here are the likely reasons that they did not.

turn around.gif

States Cheated

Well, maybe not all states. But mine certainly did. Stimulus money was not supposed to be used to replace regular operating budgets, but under Ed Rendell, that's exactly what Pennsylvania did. The tactic had the added feature of being a bomb that went off under the Corbett administration. Here's a handy chart-- ARRA (stimulus money) is in the gold.

PA ed budget chart.png

So about the time the SIG money (and other stimulus funds) was drying up, we note a steady drop in per pupil spending across the country.

Strings, Strings, Strings, So Many Strings

As the NCEE report notes, the SIG money was given so that low-performing schools would "implement one of four ED-specified school intervention models." Those include turnaround, restart, closure and transformation model, and each comes with its own set of rules. So you can have the money, but you must select one of our four-sizes-fit-all programs.

So your house is in trouble, and the feds come to help.

Feds: You can use this big tarpaulin or we can bulldoze your house.

You: But I have a hole in my dining room floor. I need some lumber to patch that up.

Feds: This tarpaulin is excellent for covering leaks in the roof, which is one of the most common problems we have found.

You: I don't have a leaky roof. I have a hole in my floor.

Feds: Well, we can always bulldoze the place.

Basing the entire business on bogus data

If you think the test-generated data will tell you everything you need to know about how successful a school is, you are doomed. You might as well try to care for and train an elephant by just studying its toenail clippings once a year. If the data is bad, it doesn't really tell you where you are, it doesn't tell you how to go somewhere else, and it doesn't tell you if you're making progress.

The worst part of depending on Big Standardized Test scores to measure school performance is not that it will keep us from making progress-- it's tat the scores might make us believe we've made progress when we haven't actually accomplished anything useful at all.

Turning Around Is Hard

The report spends a great deal of timing talking about expertise and the states' lack thereof. I'm not very interested in that line of questioning, because it comes from a deeply flawed premise. The premise runs something like this:

Low-performing schools get bad test scores because either the people there don't know what the hell they're doing or they're just not trying, or both. Once we bring in Wise People who know what the hell they're doing or create proper incentives, or both, the school will magically transform.

I won't discount the possibility that a particular school might suffer from systemic dysfunction or that some folks in the field are less committed or capable than we might wish. But I think it's far more likely that a low-performing school is filled with people who are doing the best they can, working as hard as they can, and trying to move in more or less the right direction. The very term "turnaround" suggests a school that is steadfastly moving in the completely wrong direction.

There's a cottage industry in turnaround experts (just google away), yet somehow nobody has emerged in the last decade as a proven genius who consistently turns schools into gardens of genius. Could it be that there are factors involved that cannot be easily addressed by some drive-by do-gooder for hire? Could it be that empowering the community to lead rather than enjoing it to listen might be more useful (but less profitable). Is it possible that a decline that took decades cannot be reverse in a year? Might it even require a concerted long-term commitment rather than a short term side show? And could it even be possible that a diagnosis of "low-performing" based on a single test is not particularly reliable, accurate, or helpful?

The whole turnaround model seems to be, at heart, the story of a wise man who descends on a sad school, stands on a podium and points, "That way, you fools!" The assembled locals smack themselves on the forehead and say, "Silly us. Thanks for straightening us out," and then march cheerfully into a bright new day.

My alternate model

Education is hard work, and schools are no place for wimps. If you want to help my school do better, then come here, stay here, work here, and partner with us. Listen more than you talk, because we already have a pretty good idea of what would help even though we don't waste time waiting for it to show up-- we work with what we've got and do the best we can. Don't tell us what we need; we already know way better than you do what that is. Don't come swooping in like you can do this in a week or a month or even a year and then just scoot out like a bad prom date with a short attention span. Most of us who are here made a lifetime commitment to doing this work; do not expect us to take you seriously when you haven't even committed past next June.

You may well have much to offer us in terms of how some approaches played out in other areas, or new things to try. But you are not the only expert in the room. We teachers, our students, their parents, the community members-- we already possess considerable expertise when it comes to this school. If you can't remember that, we're not going to get anything turned around.

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