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Turnaround Schools: Demystification of their Impact and Success (12/27/14)

In a 12/17/14 Washington Post article titled Turning around schools with low achievement rates never seems to work, Jay Matthews offered an analysis of the success of the current turnaround school effort in the United States. Specifically, Matthews focused on the success of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) initiative, a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In his article Matthews argued the practicality, merits, and outcomes of the SIG program. While Mathews’ article was thoughtful and relied on some present research on the topic, it lacked a measure of first hand insight from practice. Because of this, I have expanded on some of the topics that Matthews highlighted.

First Matthews argued that SIG’s goals of turning around 1000 schools each year “are a harmful fantasy.” Matthews went on to explain the rationale for such goal setting as shrewd politics, offering that the current administration “knew” that it would not be able to get the money to help kids and schools, even if they did not meet the lofty goals of the grant; as a result, the bar had to be set high initially in order to get federal lawmakers to support the program.

Matthews’ logic is largely sound on this point. However, I also submit that the importance of SIG’s high goals extended beyond their political practicality to achieve funding. What Matthew’s failed to realize is that public schools are mission driven organizations. By defining SIG’s mission through quantifiable goals, the number of schools for turnaround and the expectation for the quality of results was given clear focus. As a result, SIG not only helped secure funds to help kids and schools, it has helped make a number of those schools significantly better than they ever would have been had SIG funds not been available. I know this from my experience in the field working with SIG principals throughout the United States. Given this reality, the question now is why hasn’t SIG experienced more consistent wide spread success throughout the United States?

In his article, Matthews argued that turnaround schools are rare. In fact he even likened them to the “unicorns” of federal education policy. While it may be true that SIG has not been wildly successful, it has had success in a number of places. I also submit that the reason SIG has not been more successful is that for it to truly be successful, SIG must operate within a specific political context and the leaders of SIG schools must possess certain prerogatives.

The entire school community must “buy in” for SIG to work because tough decisions have to be made, many that will cause discomfort for a period of time. Secondly, leaders at the school level must have the authority to make decisions in the best interest of the school without fear of reprisal. This fact is consistent with the findings in Matthews’ research calling for a change in leadership practice and I add instructional practice to this argument, and not necessarily a change in leaders [principals] or teachers as one of the “answers” in SIG schools. The accountability for this level of monitored autonomy is the achievement of required goals over a specified period of time.

Matthews also noted that there are no examples of successful [school] system wide turnaround school efforts. This may very well be true. However, system wide efforts are limited by the same factors that govern turnarounds at the school level. You must have system/community wide support and there must be support for necessary tough decision making until outcomes for students are improved and sustained. Absent these conditions, no SIG effort will be successful.

Finally, Matthews offers charter schools as a solution to improving student achievement on a broad scale. Matthews cites the success of KIPP and even parallels it to playing football. Mathews asserts why have an offense that uses the huddle when your hurry up [no huddle] offense is so successful. Matthews thinking here is deeply flawed. While I am not an unequivocal opponent of charter schools, as many do good work, we must be clear. Charter schools do not do the exact same work as public schools. Public schools educate everyone who is assigned to them. Typically, charter schools work with select populations of students. Charter schools serve an import role but they are not the self-contained solution to improving academic achievement on a grand scale throughout the United States.

To close, sustained school improvement is tough work, but not impossible. Programs like SIG offer one of the multiple approaches that are needed to improve outcomes for students in the United States. By using the tools that we have and working to refine elements that impact their effectiveness, we can and will improve student achievement for the long term.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO