Saturday, January 1, 2011

What's Wrong with the Turnaround Model

U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has been very vocal about the need to turnaround the bottom 5% of the nation's public schools.

Without delving into this subject from a national policy perspective or commenting on the likelihood of the initiative's success (or cost!), one of the proposed remedies given to chronically underperforming public schools is to become a public charter school. This means "being a charter school" is both the punishment and theoretically, the remedy.

Colorado already went through this years ago when the management of Cole Middle School was put up for bid and eventually KIPP took over the failing school. This sanction was imposed under state law that preceeded No Child Left Behind's comparable provisions. KIPP Cole was open for two years, plagued by numerous problems and then closed with everyone admitting it was a mistake.

First, the KIPP philosophy requires that the student (and family) are totally committed. It's a rigorous model of extended day, extended year and about half of the Saturdays during the school year. It's tough. Many KIPP Cole families weren't prepared for just how tough it would be and balked during the implementation.

KIPP Cole's first principal resigned before the new charter school even opened the doors. Eventually Rich Harrison became the princpal. Rich started as a teacher at KIPP Cole but moved up when there really weren't too many options for leadership in the building.

Many of the Cole neighborhood families chose other educational options for their students. The first year at KIPP Cole there were only about 60 students. It was very difficult to establish a KIPP culture in that type of environment. KIPP Cole was upstairs in the 3-story, 100 yr old Cole building. The district put an alternative high school in the lower level of the building. Students chose KIPP Cole simply because they couldn't figure out another place to go or because they had a delusional view of what the school would be like.

The research I've read says that for the first two to three years, a turnaround school looks worse than it did before turnaround. Further, the cost for turnaround is significantly higher for the first few years (Mass Insight estimates the cost as $250,000 to $1 million per school, per year).

Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel of Public Impact, writing in Education Next in the Winter of 2009, stated their researched identified six strategies for turnaround:

1. Focus on a few early wins.
2. Break organization norms.
3. Push rapid-fire experimentation.
4. Get the right stuff, right the remainder.
5. Drive decisions with open-air data.
6. Lead a turnaround campaign.

A public charter school, operating under a three-year contract term, has a great deal of pressure to show increased academic achievement right away. There is little flexibility for changes in administration, inexperienced teachers and the need for an entirely new school culture. And yet that's what is expected -- right away!

Colorado's first turnaround effort showed that turnaround is extremely difficult. The Hassels estimate about 70% of turnarounds won't be successful. So what can Colorado do differently this time around for new charter schools attempting to turn around low performing communities?

Have patience and provide support. Charter school authorizers need to realize that there will be many mis-steps along the way. Rather than shoot the turnaround leaders, authorizers should provide support to identify different strategies or provide technical assistance. Policy makers and school district leaders should be careful to not continually put the turnaround school in the spotlight (like was done with KIPP Cole). Being in the spotlight highlights every mis-step that's made. Whereas other neighborhood schools would get the opportunity to make mistakes outside of the media's attention, a turnaround school doesn't get the same luxury.

The vast majority of schools identified as needing turnaround are choosing to be reconstituted rather than convert to charter school status. Being reconstituted means a new principal and the majority of teachers are replaced, but the school stays under the district's leadership and teachers may continue to operate under the district's collective bargaining agreement with the teacher's union. In other words, flexibility is limited.

In the state, eyes are on Denver as its approach is to put high performing charter school replications in neighborhoods where the schools are chronically not performing. W Denver Prep, DSST and SOAR are all starting new schools in neighborhoods that are struggling academically.

Let's all hope these new schools get patience and support from Denver Public Schools in their new venture. And most importantly, let's all hope the students in these neighborhoods have the opportunity for a better education -- and life -- as a result of these efforts!

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