Here we go again. Last year Metro Nashville Public Schools(MNPS) found out that they had fifteen schools that were classified as priority schools by the state of Tennessee. A priority school is a school ranked in the bottom 5% of the state based on TCAP scores. Of course, nobody had any idea that this was coming, which is a story for another day, so now everybody is in reactive mode. There is a cry to get rolling on a “turnaround” strategy. In response MNPS has created a “Turnaround Corps,” a highly recruited, both in district and out, group of teachers specializing in “turnarounds.” Meetings have been held with parents, teachers and community members at the named schools, and a freshly-created citizen’s advisory board has begun meeting. MNPS has even hired an outside “turnaround” consultant group. You can read more about them here. The only thing missing is a clear definition of what a “turnaround” means.
Dr. Register, Nashville’s superintendent of school, has made a decree that MNPS shall have no priority schools in three years, so I’m assuming that’s the definition we are working off of. But what happens a year after that if those schools, no longer in the spotlight and still facing a multitude of challenges, slip back on the priority list? What about if it happens in four years? Ten years. My question is, when is a school considered turned around?
What if, in our mad dash to meet this lofty goal, we deprive other borderline schools of much needed resources, and they slip onto the “priority” list. Mathematically, there will always be a bottom 5%, so its a very real possibility. I recently posed that question to the driving force behind MNPS’ newly created “Turnaround Corps,” the Executive Director of Talent Strategy. I’d heard that several teachers from not-quite-priority schools have applied to be member’s of the Corps, , since membership includes higher pay and other perks. The Executive Director’s response was that teachers can make up their own mind and that the district can’t tell them where to apply their skills.
To incentivize quality teacher to leave one needy school to go to another needy school is potential devastating. What assurance does the first school have that they will receive a teacher of equal quality? How can this not be interpreted as a game of hide the peanut, moving one school off of the list only to be replaced by another? Reformers often paint supporters of the public school system as being more concerned about adult jobs then children. How does this program not serve to protect adult employment by helping to create an endless churn of priority schools?
This strategy also serves to illuminate the primary goal of the district, getting the existing schools off of the list. It sounds to me like adult needs are superseding the needs of children. What children need, and what parents demand, are quality schools for all. That’s hard work – the day to day grind, in the trenches – and it’s not sexy. Oprah never had a school administrator on her show who simply made sure that his or her school had equitable resources and opportunities for all students. But she did have guest educators who have executed these supposed “turnaround” strategies. You know, those brave souls who have dared to challenge the system and were agents of change. What happens though, when the spotlight is off and the change agents leave? What happens when all the adults get done clapping each other on the back and congratulating each other about how they’ve turned around the school? Education is often sold as a means of “escape” for those in poverty schools. If they are encouraged to “escape” and not be a part of the lifting up the community, how is the “turnaround” sustained?
Imagine there was a school that had been successfully “turned around” and was taken off the bad list of priority schools? What happens next? I suspect that after a school is removed from the list, things soon revert to what they were before. Those dedicated teachers of the “Turnaround Corps” most likely leave because either other schools need saving or the amount of sacrifice demanded to be a change agent becomes overwhelming. There is no guarantee that the teachers who follow will be of equal quality. And the odds are these replacement teachers will be young, inexperienced teachers or worse, from TFA, because despite the recent success of the school, it will still be considered challenging and who would want to risk their TVAAS score on a school that is no longer the focus? The funding for those short-term fixes that got the school removed from the naughty list will eventually dry up or get diverted to a different initiative, and, as a result, some of the services that proved successful for the school will drop off. Good news though: administrators get to put “turnaround specialist” on their resume which leads to them being courted by consulting agencies or a being hired by the State Department of Education. For the adults, it’s a win. Kids, not so much.
That’s my issue with the whole term “turnaround”- it connotes a very short-term action. It gives the appearance that if we just focus in with laser-like intensity, that we’ll be able to fix the challenges a school faces. It allows us to take steps that give an appearance of solving problems while overlooking the real issues. Is the consultant group going to help lobby for affordable housing? Will the turnaround corps be able to service the health needs of the disadvantaged student population, or would the long-term investment of a school nurse do more to increase the in school learning? To be fair, in Nashville, the newly created Community Focus Group is looking at some of those issues and attempting to find strategies that will lead to long term success. This begs the question: based on other programs enacted, how focused will the district be on their long term strategies vs the turnaround strategies? Will the district actually listen to their community advisors or is it just a political exercise?
My suggestion is this: instead of trying to turn things around, we focus on creating quality schools. That might mean using the priority list as a jumping off point. How did those schools get there, and why were they not provided the needed resources in the first place? Then, look at the next level of schools just above the priority schools, and see what similar needs exist and discuss how we can intercede in those schools to ensure they don’t fall on the priority list. In other words, take a proactive stance at trying to keep those struggling schools off the list by investing in long-term goals for all schools. Next, we would analyze the reward schools and attempt to identify scalable programs that have proven successful. We should create a teacher recruitment strategy that puts high quality teachers in every school and compensate them at a more respectable and equitable level. We should also consider providing basic health and dental care for students who need it.
Since I’m writing a pipe dream, we should also end the ranking of schools. This artificial ranking based on standardized test creates the false illusions of winners and losers. It’s defeating before the bell even sounds. Schools are either doing the job or not. Serving the needs of the community or not. Technology gives us many new tools for assessing school’s performance that goes deeper than just testing. FairTest, is an organization that was created to push back against the misuse of summative evaluations and is promoting a better way of evaluating schools. This method would include three key components: limited large scale standardized testing, extensive school-based evidence of learning, and a school quality review process.
I find the idea of school quality review particularly intriguing. This system would involve an extensive review of every school by a team of qualified professionals every 4-5 years. They would file a report that would give parents and community members a much clearer picture of what is transpiring in the schools. They would also offer recommendations for improvements in schools where needed, and more frequent reviews could be scheduled for high need schools. It’s similar to the accredation process schools already go through. Perhaps that could just be modified and expanded. It makes a whole lot more sense then just looking at test numbers.
I also believe that central office administrators need to be part of the review teams because dependence on data is not a phenomenon just in education. Its widespread across just about every field you could name. It has a tendency to make us lazy and think data tells the whole story. All EL kids become the same and an administrator loses the ability to differentiate levels and challenges of poverty. Data can be a very useful tool, however its effectiveness is limited when its not coupled with actual observation. It’s so important to put things in context by getting out and reminding yourself that those data points are actual humans. Take that leader of the Turnaround Corps that I mentioned earlier, for example. A couple months ago I invited her to join me at my daughters school when I went to read to her class. The Corps leader’s response was, “I’d like that. I’ve never been in that school.” How can you find teachers to make a difference for a school you’ve never been in? Shouldn’t that be a priority?
It is way past time we stop looking for short-term results and, instead, focus on the long term. In a recent blog post, Peter Greene writes about the reasons why he supports public schools and the first one out of the box is stability. This system has served us well for decades and will continue to serve for decades more. In contrast, take a look at the reform movement, you know the ones who claim to be turnaround specialists. Michelle Rhee is out of education. Chiefs for Change, a coalition of current and former state education chiefs that formed just a few years ago to push a reform agenda now consists of more former than current education chiefs, and the ones still employed are hanging by a thread. Teach for America is closing a training center in New York because of a lack of recruits. I could go on, but you get the picture. The wave of those with perceived solutions is crashing, and we are left with the people we’ve always depended on: the dedicated public servants of the teaching profession. Our resources need to support the success and stability of our public schools, rather than being diverted to those high-profile corporate education reformers who may or may not be around in education in the next few years.
Those in favor of “turnarounds” like to point at the children in the so-called failing schools and say, “But they can’t afford to wait. We need to act now.” My response to that is, do you know any child that can afford to wait? Is there any child that deserves to have their resources sacrificed so that other schools can improve quickly? Is there any child who can spend a year with a sub-par teacher while we dedicate the best to another child? Is there any child that deserves less then the full fervor we bring to “turning around” a school? Those are the questions we should be asking ourselves. After all, if we provided equitable resources to all schools, we wouldn’t need “Turnaround Corps”, “Turnaround Specialists” or a “turnaround strategies” and we could abolish those terms.