School turnarounds headed down familiar path

Dear readers, colleagues, and friends,

I'd like to announce a career move I'll soon be making jointly with my husband. We've decided to combine our experience working in urban schools and in policy (Mike's 14 months as a behavioral psychotherapist in a school for behaviorally challenged kids, and my two years teaching and handful of years doing other education work) and open a center that will assist troubled schools in turning themselves around. As you may know, Ohio has been awarded $132 million in federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds to distribute to chronically failing schools, who will select from a range of providers to assist in turnaround efforts.

We're thrilled to announce that our new venture, Radical Ohio Turnarounds (ROT), has been invited into the pool of turnaround providers!  (The name ROT was birthed out of our love for well-known Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach  and we will probably use the lotus flower in the company’s logo.) We are still hammering out details but our vision is to utilize Mike’s skills in psychotherapy (specifically, empathic listening and cognitive behavioral techniques) with my broad knowledge of schools and education. Although school turnaround work is brand-new for us, we are confident that our commitment and enthusiasm will prevail and that we can assist staff in many failing Ohio schools in reclaiming their confidence, self-worth, and happiness.

While the above announcement was meant to be absurd, the premise behind it – that just about anyone can try to turn around schools and receive approval (and public dollars) to do the work – is frighteningly real.

A recent New York Times article exposing several “inexperienced companies” going after school turnaround funds made the SIG program sound more like a topic on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show than a legitimate federal program whose goal – to turn around the nation’s worst schools – is profoundly urgent. The NYTimes piece gave way to lots of criticism and has since prompted Rep. George Miller (chair of the House Education and Labor Committee) to announce that hearings will be held to determine if school turnaround groups are qualified to do such work.

Good news for Ohio, a state that approved 71 turnaround providers (nearly twice as many as the number of SIG-funded schools slated for turnaround) including the life-coaching couple whose “Center for Evocative Coaching” first caught our attention for its services sounding more like group therapy than rigorous school intervention work.

Browse the list of SIG-eligible schools (see Appendix A of Ohio’s application) and you’ll realize that turning around Ohio’s lowest-performing schools is no laughing matter. The majority of turnaround-eligible schools are rated Academic Emergency or Academic Watch by the state. Scroll through the columns denoting these schools’ performance and you’ll see proficiency rates as low as four percent, and graduation rates hovering in the low 40s. These schools are truly the bottom of the barrel, and overhauling them should be at the forefront of any strategy to close achievement gaps and lift performance among low-income or minority subgroups.

Unfortunately, the cart has come before the horse when it comes to school turnarounds. The No Child Left Behind Act identified schools in need of corrective action but left them languishing in failure as states had no teeth with which to enforce turnaround reforms. Nearly a decade later, there are still few examples of effective turnaround efforts and most failing schools live on. Sec. Duncan has reignited a sense of urgency around turning around the nation’s lowest five percent of schools and has tied federal dollars to turnarounds (via both SIGs and Race to the Top). This is a step in the right direction, but if one thing has been made clear throughout RttT and SIG, it’s that we still don’t really know what we’re doing when it comes to turnarounds.

For starters, Ohio – and most other states – couldn’t really point to successful examples of turnarounds in their Race to the Top applications, a fact that was forgiven by application reviewers despite asking for evidence of past success in other reform areas. Six elementary schools in Cincinnati were recently labeled a “turnaround success” for lifting themselves from Academic Emergency (F) to Continuous Improvement (C) through the help of the University of Virginia’s Turnaround Specialist Program, news that is encouraging but also evidence that there are few such examples of turnarounds in the Buckeye State. (Ohio’s academic rating system has so many loopholes that moving to Continuous Improvement in and of itself isn’t really a feat, so much as an example of how broad and vague the CI category is.)

Further, the fiasco over the questionable list of SIG providers in Ohio – as well as the fact that most schools slated for turnaround have selected the least rigorous option for overhaul, and won’t require replacement of staff or closure – demonstrates how difficult it is to translate a good idea into practice effectively.

This isn’t to say we should accept the status quo and abandon school turnarounds altogether. But when commitment to an education reform idea is ahead of states’ and districts’ capacity to actually carry it out, policy makers must think strategically about how to attract the kind of talent and entrepreneurialism necessary to implement it (think, Massachusetts’s Mass Insight).

In the mean time, Ohio must do everything in its power to maintain strict quality control in the school turnaround arena, rather than promote an anything-goes mentality that years ago created similar quality control issues in the state’s charter sector.

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