A new report on turnaround schools came through our in box last week, representing a welcome alternative view of leadership and change to the dominant approaches in the education system that aligns with National Equity Project approaches.
First, the dominant approach to improving schools might be encapsulated in a practice guide from the What Works Clearinghouse of the Department of Education, Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools:
1. Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership… make a clear commitment to dramatic changes from the status quo…[the school] does not have the luxury of years to implement incremental reforms.
2. Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction… use data to set goals for instructional improvement… continually reassess student learning and instructional practices to refocus the goals.
3. Make visible improvements early in the school turnaround process (quick wins).
4. Build a committed staff… may require changes in staff, such as releasing, replacing, or redeploying staff who are not fully committed…
These familiar recommendations might be called the urgency and accountability approach, informed by a traditional top-down model of leadership as rallying staff and holding them accountable. It is understandable: we all want substantial changes in the quality of education for underserved students immediately, not some day.
The other approach might be called the ‘go slower to go far’ approach, from the African proverb that goes “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” This view is also deeply concerned with impact for and on students, and aspires to changes that are sustainable, indeed self-sustaining.
A new study finds that current school turnaround policies are “more likely to cause upheaval than to help.” The new report, “Democratic School Turnarounds: Pursuing Equity and Learning from Evidence,” by Tina Trujillo at UC Berkeley and Michelle Renée of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown suggests that a collaborative, community-driven approach combined with significant, sustained financial investment and a focus on teaching and learning has been proven to be the better path to school improvement.
The federal turnaround grants are largely grounded in the firing and replacement of school staff. Because the nation’s lowest performing schools are also the hardest to staff, such approaches have an inherent logistical problem: finding the better-qualified personnel to refill vacant slots in turnaround schools. There are no lines of teacher candidates who excel at teaching low-income students of color waiting outside district offices.
The new report also points out what is missing. While many experts consider community engagement critical for turnarounds to succeed, federal and state policymakers have rarely involved the public in the turnaround process. Indeed, without community leadership, there is no consistent local counterweight to the frequent churn in leadership and policies in urban school districts.
The problem of inequity in the education system is a complex one, and cannot be solved with simple solutions. However, it can be solved. Educators and other leaders can learn to be more collaborative and build relationships and systems in their school districts for providing quality instruction and other needed services. And we can help with that.