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On School Turnarounds

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This week Michelle and Jack discuss different approaches to "failing schools," focusing particularly on which actors should take the lead in helping those schools improve.

Rhee: Next I thought it would be interesting to take the conversation to the topic of failing schools and what we can do to improve them.

First let me say that acknowledging that there are failing schools does not mean we believe all schools are failing. In fact, there are many great schools across the country that are doing amazing things in tough circumstances with too few resources. That said, there are also some schools that year in and year out fail to provide a high quality education to its students and I believe we need to be aggressive about intervening in those schools to improve them.

Contrary to what some may believe, I don't think there's any silver bullet solution here. When I was in DC we tried several different approaches to school turnarounds. Some showed real promise. Others, not so much. It was incredibly hard work for the teachers and leaders in those schools and I also think that change takes time. When turning around a failing school I don't think it's possible to see huge academic gains from year one. In my experience the main differences you could see early on had more to do with the culture and expectations in the school.

Schneider: For me a lot depends on what you mean by an aggressive intervention.

If it means doing everything possible to build capacity within a school, I think that makes sense. In fact, I think that's actually what a good district should do.

Districts have to produce a lot of paperwork—contracting for services, ensuring compliance with state and federal regulations, etc. And as a result, they're often dismissed as bureaucracies. But good districts are more than bureaucracies. Good districts are successful at channeling resources to where they're needed most.

So if an aggressive intervention means directing all of a district's energies into aiding a school—and specifically, into helping educators address the problems they feel they're facing—then it just might work. Slowly, of course. But you might see a school become a truly different place.

Too often, though, aggressive intervention just means acting before thinking and talking instead of listening. And it means moving quickly despite the collateral damage.

Rhee: So we both agree that the change won't come overnight. I want to push you on what you mean by "directing all of a district's energies into aiding a school." Some districts have the capacity to do this and they should. Others don't. So it might not result in anything.

I think it can mean that a district is allowed to realize that they don't have the capacity to help effectively and look for other options. So, for example, maybe they bring in a partner organization to work closely to train the teachers and be on-site to do that. Or it could mean that an external entity manages the school. I've seen examples of these types of models work (not all the time mind you) so those should be options as well.

Schneider: You're right, a lot of districts don't have that capacity. But they should. That's what a good district does.

Passing the task off to external providers allows the district to continue dodging the workof figuring out how to support its schools. We don't let schools say that they lack the capacity to educate children and then pass the job on to third parties. So why would we let districts do that?

I think we suffer from a collective unwillingness to figure out how to create great districts. Districts should promote professional growth—through coaching, through mentoring, through assessment, and through curricular resources. And our unwillingness to tackle that issue is leading to a lot of troubling shortcuts with regard to improving teacher quality, supporting curricular coherence, etc.

Rhee: But you yourself say above that districts have a lot they need to do. I agree that in an ideal world they'd have the capacity to lead these turnarounds. Let's take the cases where they don't.

We can't afford to let kids languish in failing schools while the district is trying to develop its ability to help. "Develop the ability to help, that's what good districts do" is easy to say, not so easy to do. Districts are sometimes stymied by so much that they wouldn't know how to do this even if they wanted to. Then what?

If a district can do this, more power to them. But if a district realizes they need to focus on fixing fundamentals first (making sure teachers get paid on time, AC/heaters are working, textbooks are ordered and delivered) they have to be able to ask for help. And there are partners out there who can provide that. I don't think that's enabling them or allowing them to shirk responsibility. I think it's wise to admit sometimes that you can't do something and seek assistance. That's not a sign of weakness.

Schneider: I don't believe that districts should pretend to possess capacities that aren't there. What I am saying, however, is that outsourcing responsibilities to third parties—many of whom are better at producing brochures than at actually improving teaching and learning—is a dodge. If the district is badly dysfunctional, fix the district.

Again, I think a lot of current policy efforts are shortcuts. Building district capacity is hard, so a lot of reformers want to dissolve the district as a unit of management. They want to believe that school autonomy or market-style competition is somehow going to solve the problem. I wish it were so. I'd even be in favor of closing schools down and opening new ones if that approach actually worked. But it doesn't. All that disruption just produces a migration of troubles.

Truly struggling schools—and I'm not talking here about otherwise thriving schools that have low overall standardized test scores—need support. And you're right, the district is often ill-equipped to provide it. So my question is: how do we fix the district? Because good districts have the potential to funnel talent and resources into schools.

Rhee: I'm totally willing to engage in the conversation about how we improve districts. Before we move onto that though, you seem to believe that all potential partners schools can turn to are just money-grabbing organizations with no expertise or real ability to help. While there are undoubtedly some shady folks out there, there are good ones too.

What do you think about nonprofits like Turnaround for Children or Scholar Academies?

Also you say you'd be willing to close schools if that approach worked but it doesn't. What I'd say is it doesn't always work. Sometimes it does. We should differentiate the factors when it does or doesn't. I don't buy the philosophy that closing schools is the end all be all answer but I also don't think we can say it never works.

To me looking externally for help and capacity isn't a dodge. It's trying to bring all resources possible to the table.

What about when a school or district asks parents for help? Is that a dodge? Are they shirking their responsibility because it's their job and their job alone to fix schools? No. It's smart for schools to bring all the possible resources together to help kids.

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