Everyone's talking about the Central Falls, Rhode Island high school that just fired its entire staff because the students were failing. The board of education decided it was time to pull the plug and start fresh. Even President Obama weighed in, supporting the board's decision, in a speech yesterday.
This is the same discussion as "turnaround" or targeting the lowest 5% of public schools, a top priority of the U.S. Sec. of Education, Arne Duncan. It's difficult, if not impossible, for people involved in the failing school to recognize the failure. Even if school leaders recognize the problem, they want change to be comfortable and incremental. The angst comes when people are replaced and reform is drastic.
But public education has "nibbled around the edges" of school reform for decades. In the last decade turnaround was called Comprehensive School Reform. The US Department of Education poured millions of dollars into schools adopting reform models and consequently created a new industry of companies that said they could make improvement in failing schools. Oh, and during that time, people didn't use the word "failing." Instead the politically correct thing to say was "underperforming."
Now a decade later some of those same companies see the writing on the wall that Race to the Top money and Title I School Improvement money will be funding reform in the bottom 5% of schools. Thus, the companies have, or are, morphing into new efforts without the expertise to back up their claims. Companies that in the past provided teacher professional development, are now offering administrator mentoring or other needs identified through the comprehensive evaluation of most of these programs. Whether or not the company has capacity to successfully deliver these new services may be questionable.
Aside from the aspect of creating a whole new education industry to address turnaround, it's very common for education leaders to ignore the lessons learned from past mistakes. For example, many of the education leaders working on turnaround across the country don't even remember the Comprehensive School Reform lessons learned.
It's hard to convey to policy makers, boards of education members, public school administrators and teachers how difficult reform can be. It's easy for people to pontificate that, "it's all about the children" when, in reality, it's about what is most comfortable or politically palatable.
Simply put, turnaround is brutal.
Compromises are continually made by decision-makers when turnaround is actually implemented. Closing a school is difficult, so transitioning out existing grades is the compromise. Replacing the entire staff is difficult, so compromises are made on which teachers stay or go. Hiring decisions may be made on the need to have people of color serve students of color, rather than ability being the highest priority. And probably most difficult of all, is establishing a high level of expectation in the new school culture. When people, including students and parents, don't understand what "quality" looks like, how can they learn that on a day-to-day basis? When leaders in the new school get push back from parents or students, how many will decide that a series of "small" compromises" is just more expedient for the larger good?
It's easy for people to say that students in a failing school deserve better. But what if those students don't truly understand what "better" is? In reality, "better" means more homework, high quality work, maybe a longer school day and school year, more reading and less time to hang out or play video games. Sound appealing? These types of changes, in combination with the absence of trusted staff students were comfortable with make change difficult. Oftentimes there is a tumultuous time for the school community, which may hinder progress on turnaround.
I'm glad that some people are addressing the immediate lessons learned from turnaround efforts. The research community should be all over these lessons learned and communicating them across the nation. Hopefully, before more children become the casualties of another venture in public education.