Turning around turnarounds

One of the indisputable successes of NCLB is that it shines a bright light on the dimmest schools in the country. A decade ago, underperforming schools were free to languish in relative obscurity. Today, some 1,200 of them bear the scarlet letter of a chronically failing school.

Less successful, however, have been NCLB's provisions for turning these failing schools around. Under the law, schools that do not make "adequate yearly progress" for five straight years must 1) convert to a charter school, 2) replace staff, 3) hire an external manager, 4) submit to a state take-over, or 5) undertake "any other major restructuring of the school's governance that produces fundamental reform." Most schools choose the fifth option--NCLB's flagship loophole--and grope in the dark with little success.

Part of the problem is that the literature on successful turnaround models is quite limited, the phenomenon of sanctions for failing schools being but a few years old. But, as a recent paper points out, documented turnaround efforts from other sectors offer a number of valuable lessons for educators.

Public Impact scoured 59 documents, mostly business-journal style case studies, and highlighted some of the turnaround strategies that best served struggling organizations. They found, for instance, that "successful turnaround leaders use speedy, focused results as a major lever to change the organization's culture." Getting these early victories requires "a rapid process of trial and error in which unsuccessful tactics are dropped and new strategies are tried."

Such was the approach New York City police chief William Bratton took starting in 1994 to reduce crime, most notably by targeting the squeegee-wielding window washers that pestered motorists. Though sometimes "one-dimensional and peripheral" to bigger objectives, such early successes "serve as a powerful symbol for stakeholders that something has changed."

Public Impact also found that "successful turnarounds are typically marked by vigorous analysis of data," as exemplified by the NYPD's use of Compstat. Bratton implemented regular meetings at which commanders were presented crime data on their precincts and then grilled by their superiors about how to improve. Such diagnostic uses of data are not completely foreign to the education sector--groups have already sprung up to promote more and better data usage in schools--but no school or district has come close to replicating the success of Compstat.

These and other strategies explored in the report are handy models for school leaders and administrators to adopt. But the report also examines the environmental factors that influence school turnaround efforts--and meeting some of these conditions may require deeper changes. For instance, the report notes that "performance monitoring is built into the market dynamics" for most for-profit firms (revenue levels) and nonprofit organizations (grant funding levels). For schools, however, they find that current "external performance expectations... are insufficient to spur substantial school improvement in many schools." In other words, accountability provisions aren't tough enough, and the money keeps flowing no matter what.

Furthermore, most organizations that succeed in restructuring give leaders "sufficient latitude to implement... substantial changes." Often that's not the case in public schools, where, according to a recent Fordham study, principals' hands are tied by collective bargaining agreements and other district regulations. Most school leaders aren't free to embark on the "rapid process of trial and error" described above, and those who try risk squandering the good will of the local teachers union.

Which is not to say that schools should be run exactly like businesses--or police departments, for that matter. Continental Airlines, IBM, and the NYPD (all studied in this report) have needs far different from those faced by public schools. But rescuing a chronically failing organization requires immense creative efforts regardless of the sector, and many public schools are quashing that creativity by ignoring the incentives that fuel it.

Unfortunately, getting them to embrace the conditions required for successful turnarounds is no easy task. We've seen some promising experiments with principal empowerment, but they're few and far between. And the bugaboo of external pressure (i.e., accountability) still remains. NCLB's sanctions have proved toothless, and school choice efforts are still far too subdued to provide meaningful market pressures.

Our best hope is that the illustrative experiences of other sectors will continue to be brought to light and will start sinking in with policymakers and educators. As researchers Joseph F. Murphy and Coby V. Meyers argue in their forthcoming book, Turning Around Failing Schools: Lessons from the Organizational Sciences, "there is an insularity and parochialism in the [education] turnaround literature that is as arrogant as it is ill-advised." Arrogant maybe, but ill-advised surely.

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February 29, 2008
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