Sunday, November 25, 2012

Follow Up on Failure of Turnarounds

I got a TON of feedback to my last email, in which I forwarded Andy Smarick’s column on the widespread failure of efforts to turnaround failing schools and districts. I’ve included much of the commentary and Andy’s response below, but first wanted to weigh in with my own thoughts.

Having read the arguments, as well as thinking about this issue for a long time, my first comment is that this isn’t a black or white issue. At one extreme, I think most sensible folks would agree that if we could, overnight, replace every failing school in America with a KIPP-quality school, that would be nirvana. At the other extreme, most sensible folks would agree that pouring more money into a chronically failing school without fundamentally changing what’s going on at that school is sure to fail (in fact, by pouring more money in with no meaningful change, you’re just rewarding failure!) In particular, there need to be big personnel changes – at least 50% – for any turnaround effort to have a chance. It’s simply not possible that all the teachers and school leaders are wonderful in a school in which, say, 80% of children are reading below grade level, or that has a 50%+ dropout rate. Sadly, most turnarounds are completely lame – the school remains shackled to the bureaucracy, more mediocre people are hired, and the existing mediocre people are given more utterly useless “professional development” – so no wonder they fail! But it doesn’t necessarily follow that all turnarounds are doomed to failure and therefore we shouldn’t try, for a number of reasons.

First, just because badly designed and implemented turnarounds fail doesn’t mean that all will fail. Terry Greer, the super in Houston, describes below the turnarounds underway there, which look promising. And with the new contract in Newark, combined with various other factors (people: the four C’s: Chris (Christie), Chris (Cerf), Cory and Cami; competition from top charter operators; TFA ramping up, Zuckerberg money, etc.), I’m optimistic the many of Newark’s schools can be markedly improved.

Those last two words raise another point: how do we define success? When has a school been turned around? What if the students at a particular school currently fall into the following reading cohorts: 0% advanced; 10% proficient; 20% basic; and 70% below basic. Then, after a turnaround effort, the cohorts improve to this: 5% advanced; 20% proficient; 25% basic; and 50% below basic. Should we cheer or jeer these results? On the plus side, there’s been a 150% increase in the number of students who are proficient and advanced (10% to 25%) and a 28% decrease (from 70% to 50%) of below basic students – but this is still a mediocre school, in which half of kids are below grade level.

So is an improvement from terrible to mediocre (in a school or a district) success or failure??? I’d argue the former. Turning around failing schools and districts is BRUTALLY hard work – big (heck, even small) broken system are notoriously hard to change – so in the vast majority of cases, even if you’re successful, there will be a gradual change from terrible, to lousy, to mediocre, to okay, to good, to great. This whole process might take 20 years and, to get to great, will require big systemic changes far beyond individual schools and districts like how all teachers in this country are recruited and trained.

The implications of what I’m saying are very troubling: even in a best-case scenario, millions of children are going to get lousy-to-mediocre educations over the coming decades and hence most of them are screwed for life (along with dire implications for our economic future, income inequality, social cohesion and stability, etc.). I wish I were wrong – but I don’t think I am. It’s taken up 40+ years to turn the best system of public education in the world to one that’s middle of the pack, and I see no way to turn around this supertanker very quickly, especially given how decentralized the system is (90% of K-12 public school spending is state and local).

“Hold on there just a second, Whitney!”, you might be saying. “Instead of the brutal slog you’re describing, why don’t we simply immediately replace all of the failing schools with ones like KIPP that you’re so familiar with?” Indeed, this is what Andy calls for below: he argues that the best option is “a new-start charter strategy or expansion effort of an existing high-performing charter network that operate outside of traditional politics and policies and can build new approaches to instruction, human capital, and school culture?”

I’m 100% in favor of this – and I’m also 100% in favor of ending childhood (and adult!) poverty, not to mention obesity, cancer and wars. And a chicken in every pot!

OK, now let’s return to reality. After 12 years of breakneck expansion, there are 125 KIPPs nationwide serving 39,000 students. This is a drop in the ocean of the 100,000 K-12 public schools with 50 million students in this country. Of course, there are other excellent networks and they’re expanding too – but I’d guess that there are only maybe two dozen in the country. So now it’s a thimble in the ocean.

I’m not in any way knocking the importance of what these schools are doing: they’ve giving a few hundred THOUSAND kids a chance in life, are making a HUGE impact in certain cities/areas like New Orleans, Newark, and Harlem, and are changing the whole ed reform debate. As I wrote on page 90 of my school reform presentation (

        KIPP and a handful of other similar schools are both laboratories of innovation – developing, testing and implementing new educational practices that can then be adopted more widely – and are also "black swans."
        Just as the existence of even one black swan proves that all swans aren't white, even a small number of high-performing schools proves that, without spending any additional money, schools have the capability to change the life trajectories of children and send nearly all low-income, minority students to college. They prove that demography is not destiny!
        KIPP schools have been a major catalyst in transforming the debate about the achievement gap, from one focused on excuses ("we just need to spend more money") and blaming the victims ("it's impossible to educate those kids") to one that centers on how to make every school as successful as KIPP schools.

Thus, we should be doing everything we can to help high-quality K-12 schools (whether regular public, public charter, or yes, even parochial) expand and replace failing schools.

But at the same time, we need to be realistic that the capacity of wonderful operators who can come in and replace failing schools is maybe 1% of the need each year, so we’re going to have to figure out cost-effective, impactful ways to improve the other 99% of schools.

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