Failed Ohio school turnaround in the New York Times

In a New York Times article this week, Sam Dillon examined the Obama administration's $4 billion attempt to turn around the country's worst schools and highlighted Ohio's capital city's $20 million effort to remake seven of the city's most troubled schools. One school, Champion Middle School, has for decades been a poster child for failed schools and failed turnaround efforts.

As we noted late last year, the dysfunction at Champion is chronic. In 2001, only 23 percent of the school's sixth graders were proficient in reading. A decade later and after multiple turnaround efforts (including new principals and teachers over the years) the figure was just above 26 percent and math scores had actually slid from 33 percent proficient to just 23 percent proficient. These are bleak numbers indeed and they offer a fairly stark indictment of the whole turnaround enterprise.

Yet, as Dillon reported, ???because leading schools out of chronic failure is harder than managing a successful school ??? often requiring more creative problem-solving abilities and stronger leadership, among other skills ??? the supply of principals capable of doing the work is tiny.??? The nation's schools of education have not been generating the talent necessary for turning around the nation's most troubled schools, nor have they even been trying to. ???Only a tiny percentage (of the nation's 1,200 ed schools) really prepare leaders for school turnaround,??? said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia.

Ohio and other states need a new leadership model for school turnaround experts. Some of our most troubled schools might be salvageable if we can bring a new breed of leadership to bear on the turnaround effort. We know from first-hand experience with a school turnaround effort in Fordham's hometown of Dayton that without clear and consistent leadership, the best-planned efforts fall apart quickly. The few efforts showing some success at turnarounds ??? Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia or the University of Virginia's School Turnaround Specialist Program ??? have focused much attention on finding and developing high-quality school leaders and teachers who are trained to work in a school turnaround environment.

This is akin to training nurses and doctors to work triage in big city emergency rooms or in combat zones. These are professionals with special training and temperament. Having a school turnaround plan is important, but more important is having a team in place that can deal with the complexities and uncertainties of a school turnaround. School turnaround leaders have to be masters at overcoming adversity and staying positive when it seems much around them is falling apart. As the Times reported, such turnaround experts are a rare breed.?? As part of their $4 billion school turnaround effort the Obama administration should route some of these dollars to help launch new models of school leadership training ??? not exclusively owned and operated by schools of education.

- Terry Ryan

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