Turning Around the Nation's Worst Schools
About This Event

With the nation’s worst schools languishing, there is much talk about the need to turn schools around. But what does a school turnaround actually look like? What obstacles does it face in terms of implementation and policy? What aggressive restructuring efforts have been tried so far, and what impact have they had?

When a school fails to improve test scores for five straight years, it enters the last-ditch “restructuring” phase of the No Child Left Behind Act. With more than two thousand schools (and counting) planning or implementing school restructuring, the market for turnarounds is ripe. Recognizing that conventional efforts to restructure schools typically fall short, there has been increasing interest in reconfiguring people, institutions, and support systems to radically improve America’s worst schools.

Please join us on March 11, 2008, as we push past the jargon and examine what it takes to craft and implement a coherent school turnaround strategy. This conference is cosponsored by the Mass Insight Education & Research Institute.

9:00 a.m.
Registration and Breakfast
Frederick M. Hess, AEI
Panel I.
Turnaround of Failing Schools: An Overview
Andrew Calkins, Mass Insight Education & Research Institute
Steven Adamowski, Hartford (Connecticut) Public Schools
Kevin Johnson, St. Hope Public Schools
Kirk Kramer, Bridgespan Group
Frederick M. Hess, AEI
Panel II.
A Paradigm for School Turnaround
William Guenther, Mass Insight Education & Research Institute
Seth Reynolds, Parthenon Group
Michele Cahill, Carnegie Corporation of New York
Michelle Pierre-Farid, Friendship Public Charter Schools
Andy Rotherham, Education Sector
Frederick M. Hess, AEI
12:30 p.m.
Panel III.
The Challenge of Turnaround Implementation
Douglas Sears, Boston University
Anthony Cavanna, American Institutes for Research
Garth Harries, New York City Department of Education
Jim Peyser, NewSchools Venture Fund
William Guenther, Mass Insight Education & Research Institute
Panel IV.
Turnarounds and NCLB
Ronald Peiffer, Maryland State Department of Education
Lindsay Hunsicker, U.S. Senate HELP Committee (minority)
Carmel Martin, U.S. Senate HELP Committee (majority)
Doug Mesecar, U.S. Department of Education
Frederick M. Hess, AEI
Adjournment and Reception
Event Summary

School Turnarounds Encounter Obstacles, Need Support

WASHINGTON, MARCH 14, 2008 -- The nation's worst schools have been languishing for decades. But understanding how to turn around these chronically underperforming schools--and what the obstacles will be--is something policymakers have only begun to discuss concretely. The dramatic restructuring that these schools need was the topic of a recent joint AEI/Mass Insight Education & Research Institute conference. As conference speaker Kirk Kramer of the Bridgespan Group put it, "incremental change isn't going to get you there." NBA star turned school reformer Kevin Johnson described his strategy to turn around a California high school as a "big bang approach."

But the "turnaround" concept lacks definition. How are school turnarounds distinct from other reforms? Under what conditions might they be effective? William Guenther, president and founder of Mass Insight, said that "in every other sector, turnaround is a professional discipline." Kramer agreed: "It is time to "figure out what is working here" and "begin to systematically apply that elsewhere so that everyone's not reinventing the wheel."

To date, examples of successful school turnarounds are isolated. Many of the speakers at the conference, including Johnson and Washington, D.C., principal Michelle Pierre-Farid, spoke from firsthand experience. But individual successes pale against the scale of the problem. Doug Mesecar of the Department of Education came armed with numbers: under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the major education law in America, nearly 11,000 schools are in one of NCLB's five "stages" of mandated improvement. Of those, over 2,000 are in the final stage, which requires either a turnaround or a similarly significant restructuring.

The heart--and stumbling block--of turnaround discussions is human capital: how to attract and retain teachers and leaders who are skilled in carrying out turnarounds. "We have spent twenty-five years in education reform focused first on programs," Guenther lamented. "We need to focus on people first." But the landscape of the working world is changing. While Education Sector's Andrew Rotherham emphasized the stability of the current teaching workforce--"the overwhelming majority of educators live and work within one hundred miles of where they grew up"--Hartford, Connecticut, schools superintendent Steven J. Adamowski highlighted the growing mobility of the workforce: "I don't know if it's realistic anymore for us to think that we're going to take a twenty-one-year-old off into the ranks of teaching and somehow keep him for thirty-five years." It is time, he said, "to build on the front end of the career, the back end of the career, have some type of service that is not lifetime in nature, but rather transitional." Making matters worse, removing ineffective teachers--a key element of turnaround strategies--is no small task. Turnaround leaders must have the power "to remove the culture-killing individuals," said Seth Reynolds of the Parthenon Group. In the education sector, this process is untenably slow.

Even if human capital woes are mended, school turnaround practitioners have their work cut out for them. You cannot have leaders "being dropped into conditions where they can't succeed," Guenther explained; communities must be primed and equipped for the changes.

In Johnson's experience in Sacramento, California, community engagement was crucial. Because "schools are the center of neighborhoods," he explained, "it's very hard to improve public education in poor neighborhoods unless economic development and community revitalization are part of the equation." But Andrew Calkins of Mass Insight cautioned that "if left completely up to their own devices, most communities don't have the will to undertake the fundamental transformative kind of reform that we're talking about."

At that point, government efforts become essential, Guenther said: "none of this dramatic change is going to happen without state action." The pending reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act may change the turnaround landscape. Lindsay Hunsicker of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee's minority staff asserted that developing turnarounds is the "next chapter of how we look at NCLB." But Carmel Martin, from the committee's majority staff, admitted that "NCLB has done a pretty good job of helping us to see where the problems are, but we haven't been doing a great job in figuring out how to solve them." Mesecar added that even differentiating between failing schools was "supremely complicated."

Perhaps the most promising turnaround methods lie outside the traditional public school system. As those with firsthand turnaround experience were quick to note, support from the private and independent sector is key to effective restructuring. Johnson and Pierre-Farid relied on the private sector for financial, legal, and media backing. Garth Harries, instrumental in New York City turnarounds, explained that partners bring "three really important things to the table": capacity, higher standards, and protection during administration change. Adamowski added that "significant public-private partnerships in the design, the operation, and the governance in the turnaround school creates a much more robust school environment and helps protect new approaches from encroaching institutional influences." Michele Cahill of the Carnegie Corporation cautioned that school partners must be 'partners from the design phase.' Doug Sears, speaking from his experience managing the Boston University/Chelsea Public Schools alliance, agreed: clearly defined responsibilities from the outset were key the partnership's success. In his case, the university offered instrumental support through funding as well as financial and labor relations expertise.

All speakers agreed that turnaround work is not for the faint of heart. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at AEI, opened the conference with a telling statistic: even in the private sector, experts estimate that turnarounds efforts are successful only one-third of the time. Perhaps the speakers' most resounding caution for those attempting turnarounds was to manage expectations and anticipate powerful resistance. Harries commented that certain New York City turnarounds "took an act of massive political will" and warned that "you have to be willing to take on community controversy." The insights and framework presented by conference participants are a key step forward in helping school turnarounds to succeed.


For video, audio, and more information about this conference, visit www.aei.org/event1646/.

AEI's Education Policy Studies program is a national leader in research on school reform. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies, is the author or editor of Educational Entrepreneurship (Harvard Education Press, 2006), Tough Love for Schools (AEI Press, 2006), Urban School Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2005), and Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

For more information about education policy studies at AEI, contact Morgan Goatley [email protected] or 202.828.6031.

For media inquiries, contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected] or 202.862.4870.


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