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Turnaround Schools: Do Turnarounds Work?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

 This past week, President Obama took the podium along side of U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and long-time education advocate and current chair of America’s Promise Alliance, Alma Powell to highlight the immense problem that America has: the high school dropout crisis. President Obama’s call to become a “Grad Nation” and reduce the high school dropout epidemic, specifically focusing on reforming the 5,000 lowest performing schools (also called dropout factories), comes not a moment too soon. According to research, 30 percent of young adults in the United States fail to graduate high school while dropout rates for African Americans and Hispanics are close to 50 percent. This figure alone seems dramatic enough, but there are even more dramatic numbers that describe the lifelong consequences of being a dropout. Dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed. Even the individuals who are lucky enough to obtain employment earn an average of $9,200 less, annually, than high school graduates. Dropouts are also plagued by limited opportunities for career advancement and are more likely to have inadequate health care. High school dropouts present a serious challenge to our society through costs in social programs; dropouts comprise 52 percent of welfare recipients, 82 percent of the prison population, and 85 percent of juvenile justice cases.


During his speech, President Obama said: “We'll not only challenge states to identify high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, we're going to invest another $900 million in strategies to get those graduation rates up.  Strategies like transforming schools from top to bottom by bringing in a new principal, and training teachers to use more effective techniques in the classroom.  Strategies like closing a school for a time and reopening it under new management, or even shutting it down entirely and sending its students to a better school…And strategies like replacing a school's principal and at least half of its staff.  Now, replacing school staff should only be done as a last resort.” 


Obama’s case for school turnaround is not a new concept. In fact, it is part of No Child Left Behind, which stated that if a school did not make Adequately Yearly Progress (AYP) for “a fifth straight year, the school district must initiate plans for restructuring the school. This may include reopening the school as a charter school [1], replacing all or most of the school staff [2], or turning over school operations either to the state [3] or a private company [4] with a demonstrated record of effectiveness” (NCLB Parent’s Guide).


The “move the adults out” approach to turning around schools (also called reconstituting schools) is a tense issue within the education world. The recent situation in Rhode Island where the school board decided to fire all of its teachers is proof of the controversial nature of this turnaround method, especially when teacher unions contribute to the discourse. The successfulness of this approach is highly questionable and greatly debated. One report by the New York Times stated mixed opinions about the effectiveness this turnaround strategy.


So what can we learn about “turnaround” from past research? One report by the Education Public Interest Center suggests that none of the four options of restructuring mentioned above are particularly successful in improving schools. Another report by the Center on Education Policy found that schools that have positive results from restructuring used multifaceted approaches, including a curriculum reassessment, reassessing teaching standards, providing teacher development and retraining, partnering with neighboring community organizations, and implementing dropout prevention programs. Most schools in their study completed a needs assessment to identify strengths and challenges to determine what methods of restructuring might best suit their school. They also found that while some schools with high staff replacement had positive results, many schools also had a lot of unforeseen negative consequences. One of the challenges associated with schools that had these negative consequences were located in areas with teacher shortages that took too long to recruit new teachers and left too little time to plan the school year. Another specific challenge was the union practices of bidding for positions based on seniority paired with teacher shortages, which led to teachers being placed in a grade level for which they were not best qualified.


Another report which many schools are using for turnaround strategies is The Turnaround Challenge by Mass Insight Education and Research Institute. This report states that in order to turnaround schools, a comprehensive approach must be developed in order to improve schools. This report suggests a number of key elements that must be in this mix including, clearly defined authority; an aggressive hiring and staff development campaign to recruit and develop the best possible teaching force; highly capable and distributed school leadership (several leaders in addition the principal working together); additional time in the school day and year; performance-based behavioral expectations that are shared with everyone (students, parents, teachers, administrators); and integrated, research-based programs and related social services.


One thing that is clear is that the old methods of restructuring do not work well. Instead, we need to focus on multifaceted approaches that involve building a stronger curriculum, improving training and professional development for teachers and staff, working with the neighboring communities and local community organizations to help provide social services, implementing successful, research-based dropout prevention programs, and investing in successful alternative education high schools. While much work lies ahead, President Obama’s commitment to $900 million to jumpstart this effort is certainly a good start.


 Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education


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