Turn Around Schools

  • 25 July, 2010

Let me go on record as saying I'm not a big fan of the turnaround school movement that comes out of Chicago. The idea has been that you identify a school that isn't doing well, you try to fix it, and if it doesn't improve you close it down. I have always been on the side of fixing such schools rather than closing them.

  However, what do you do with a school that doesn't improve? There are schools in Chicago (and elsewhere) that have received a lot of resources and that have had a lot of time, and they still haven't fixed the problems. One can blame the kids and the neighborhoods, but often there are similar schools right in those neighborhoods that are doing much better. Under such circumstances, districts need to be able to reconfigure enrollments (to reduce the concentration of poverty) and to fire recalcitrant or ineffective teachers and principals, so reluctantly I end up accepting that some schools simply have to be closed.

  Last week, I was asked to speak to a group of high school teachers and principals from the "turnaround schools" in Kentucky. Apparently, these are low performing schools that have been given a year to fix themselves. The mood was not good, though despite that, I'd say the vast majority of these men and women were polite (most seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say about what needs to be done to raise reading achievement).

  However, there was a question that I failed to understand and that I ended up giving a stupid answer to (I apparently didn't get the point of the inquiry). After we finished up, I went back to the questioner and tried again. I thought his concern was about using assessments to guide practice at the high school level. But his question was really about justice.

  He wanted to know if I thought it was fair to make decisions based on large scale standardized reading tests, when the major tests of that type are not calibrated. One test might say students are reading at a 4.5, while another might claim the same kids are at the 5.2 level.

  He is not wrong that those kinds of outcome numbers do differ, because all of the various tests are normed on different groups. However, there are a couple of other points that need to be considered: First, the correlations among such tests are usually very high (indicating that if we tested a bunch of schools, we would find that they stacked up in very similar orders no matter what the numbers). In other words, these tests are valid for this purpose and most such reading tests do a pretty good job of placing schools in ordered lists (and they are pretty reliable too).

  Second, the states and cities that are "turning school around" in this way are not choosing schools that are far from the bottom. This procedure catches some low performing schools, but allows many, perhaps most, to continue on. It might be frustrating to be identified as being a school in trouble, but it definitely is not a justice issue (these schools are very low; just because some other low schools aren't being caught in this net is not the problem).

  Once I understood the question was and why it was being asked, I was very sad. Instead of focusing like a laser on addressing the very real problems of these schools, some of these folks were still griping that they had been caught when others had not been (it reminded me of the BP executive who wanted his life back).

  Our lowest performing schools are clearly in trouble, despite any weaknesses that might exist in the identification tests. Teachers and principals can make things better for kids and they should be doing so without the threat of school closings. That they have not been doing so is the reason that the turnaround process exitss at all.


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Turn Around Schools


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.