The New Turnaround Challenge

We’re past the halfway point of the expanded $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant (SIG) program for school turnaround — a good time to take a thoughtful look at what’s working, what’s not, and what’s possible.

To that end, today we kick off a multi-month Turnaround Forum — a series of issue briefs, blogs, and email blasts featuring commentary, news, research, practical tools, and (we hope) lively discussion. You’ll be hearing from Mass Insight leaders, staff from our School Turnaround Group, leading state and district practitioners, and respected thinkers such as Cindy Brown, Bryan Hassel, Sandy Kress, Paul Hill, Robin Lake, Marc Tucker and others who have joined us in this effort.

Since our landmark 2007 research report, The Turnaround Challenge, we’ve been working at the unique intersection of policy and practice, helping policymakers create the conditions where practitioners can do what it takes to dramatically raise student achievement. We are now partnering with the first group of districts to adopt the Partnership Zone community cluster strategy.  Through this Forum, we’re hoping to provide a platform for many additional voices — people like us who believe we have a truly unique chance to transform the country’s worst schools and in doing so, create a model for a new kind of district structure.

The new turnaround challenge is to make sure we’re taking advantage of the unique opportunity provided by the Obama Administration and Congress to focus on the bottom five percent of schools and leverage significant federal funding for school turnaround.  A few starting observations to help frame the key issues:

1. We are more convinced than ever that districts have an unprecedented opportunity to become laboratories of innovation. After all, why should charters have all the fun? We know success requires getting the 3 “C’s” right: flexible working conditions, new embedded capacity with accountability and mini-district clusters.

2. School turnarounds provide a unique opportunity to find a “third way” between the two extremes that have driven urban education reform in recent decades — top-down, where central office makes all the key decisions vs. decentralized school autonomy where principals get more power and responsibility. Command-and-control clearly is a failed strategy. But school-centric “one-offs” led by dynamic principals just don’t have enough impact.  The clustering concept provides a middle path: essentially creating vertically integrated mini-districts of high schools and feeder schools.

3. School turnarounds offer the perfect opportunity for the integrated, systemic approach that’s needed to transform urban school systems.  Just as “one-off” schools won’t get us where we need to go, neither will “one-off” strategies: a new literacy program here, stronger teacher evaluations there, and so on. Districts need to pull multiple levers at once, and turnaround provides the freedom and funding to do so.

But how? Who? Where? And how do you measure success? We’ll be discussing questions like these in the coming months. Join us.

Bill Guenther and Justin Cohen