Enduring Myths That Inhibit School Turnaround
reviewed by Rachel E. Durham - April 29, 2018
This captivating volume brings into clear focus the ways that the education community commits educational malpractice when thrusting schools into turnaround. Organized into five sections, each of the volumes chapters lays out a compelling myth or assumption that implicitly guides school turnaround and challenges it with facts. Indeed, our investment of billions of dollars toward improving persistently low-achieving schools reflects puzzling certitude, not only about how to improve a failing school, but what such a school looks like, and what contributes to school failure.
The conceits of our turnaround regime highlighted in the volumes first section are that we know the data points that signal school failure, and we know what data points signal improvement. The first chapter makes the astute point that identifying a "failing school" is not as straightforward as one might assume. And at the same time, identifying an "improved school" isnt either. With compelling data, the authors show how student achievement, measured annually, suffers from a great deal of volatility over time. The second chapter reinforces this notion, calling out the lack of research on the process of failure. Even when a struggling school is characterized using a multitude of troubling data points, virtually none of the data speaks to the critical question of how the school got there in the first place. Such are the pitfalls of being overly reliant on test scores for accountability, metrics which are nearly always summative and far too rarely process-oriented. The third chapter makes a tangential argument, calling into question common stereotypes of struggling schools, demonstrating that large urban or isolated rural schools are not the only ones that struggle, as poverty has become a much more suburbanized problem, affecting "in-between districts," as well.
The conceits called out in the volumes second section could be stated as: stopping to reflect, or asking why our students are failing on tests is a waste of time and energy. Nay, we must only dedicate resources to improving, we must look only forward, and we must fix everything awry at once! Chapter Five remarks on the irony of the turnaround effort being itself a mythical single-lever solution to fixing struggling schools. Just as school failure reflects years of decline, and is nearly always as a result of problem cascade and interaction (p. 76), no single solution should be expected to change the situation right away. The authors offer contrasts with the medical field. To wit, if the Food and Drug Administration requires a five-year study period to confirm treatment benefit, why do we expect a problem as complex as school failure to respond to a single solution, let alone in just the three short years of a turnaround or school improvement grant? Related, Chapter Six (aptly titled Everything But the Kitchen Sink) uses thought-provoking vignettes to warn against the incoherence often resulting from a lack of strategic and well-timed, incremental changes during turnaround. Certainly, low student achievement is an urgent problem; however, as the authors caution, this same urgency behooves us to slow down and implement changes with care and direction.
Chapters Seven and Eight bring to bear a more holistic, systemic look at school turnaround, questioning the role of districts and states. In Chapter Seven, the authors muse about whether these agencies are partners, or whether they are enforcers. Too often, they argue, districts and states have been the latter, with efforts hyper-focused on the school, conceived of as an island. Too often neglected are the conditions in which the school operates, in terms of talent management, instructional infrastructure, capacity for differentiation, and support for leadership. Chapter Eight discusses these dynamics regarding schools and state agencies, arguing that Race to the Top (RttT) failed to bring greater capacity to states, maintaining schools as the locus of control, even while RttT was a state-focused initiative.
The volumes third section includes four motley chapters about how turnaround is structured, the first of which considers the myth of the effective turnaround district. Such portfolio districts (p. 156) were intended to focus turnaround resources and promote collaboration. The authors demonstrate, however, how the intended shared learning and collaboration often proved impractical and unwieldy. Next, Chapter Ten reinforces the notion that better data on the processes underlying school failure and success are needed before real, sustained improvement can take place. Presenting an integrated framework, along with novel visualizations of improvement data, the authors call for a clear theory of change, common language, and a better appreciation of the nuances involved in turnaround.
Chapter Eleven is perhaps one of the most essential chapters in the volume, as it turns readers attention to the strongest correlate of school failure: poverty. The authors actually build on two myths of turnaround in this chapter. The first is that factors external to schools can be compartmentalized from school improvement, and second, that staff reconstitution builds capacity. Presenting the community school model as a promising approach to increase capacity and remediate external barriers to learning, the authors additionally caution against demoralizing communities and destroying schools social capital using reconstitution (i.e., replacing the leader and up to half of the buildings staff). Implicit in such an approach is the question, who wants to come teach at our failing school?
In Chapter Twelve, the authors challenge the myth that only an outside force can turn around a failing school, and reinforce the imperative to strengthen the existing internal school capacity. They remind us that the institutional knowledge of existing staff is a critical resource, and that further investments via quality and targeted professional development along with institutionalized learning communities would better sustain school reforms, compared to starting from scratch. Along the same line, Chapter Fourteen dispels the myth that infusing a troubled school with new talent is necessary because the original staff are simply resistant to change. The authors charge that an organizational disruption approach is used primarily because it is politically popular, it is expeditious, and because research has not shown professional development to be an effective lever to improve student outcomes. Yet they argue that the research on professional development is limited. Provisions often do not target specific instructional needs, research on its use has suffered from methodological limitations, and particular professional learning programs have, in fact, produced positive results.
Chapter Thirteen leads the fourth section of the volume, focused on turnaround agents, and offers a fascinating discussion of male gender bias in conceptions of turnaround leadership. Using original research collected from participants of a leadership preparation program and a review of federal guidance documents, the authors uncover disconcerting preferences for stereotypically masculine qualities and an eschewal of traditionally feminine approaches. Specifically, they contrast systemic tendencies to reward aggressive, authoritarian leadership qualities with characteristics that would otherwise lend themselves well to school turnaround management, particularly consensus and trust-building, nurturance, communality, and collaboration.
The final section of the volume, concerned with school turnaround measurement and conceptualization, begins with a chapter that convincingly argues that our turnaround regimes have compelled a Faustian bargain. Tactics like focusing on test scores in isolation, targeting and tracking low-performing students, teaching to the test, destroying social capital through reconstitution, and manipulating enrollment toward students with favorable outcomes, exemplify the inequities reinforced when engaging in typical approaches to turnaround. The authors rightly note that the discussion of failing schools is really the discussion of poverty (p. 287). Thus, they argue that by maintaining the turnaround conceptualization of the school as the sole unit of control, rather than the larger socio-environmental forces that drive student outcomes, we as a society are only ever going to change student outcomes temporarily and inequitably.
The last two chapters present two final myths. The first is that publicly shaming schools via rating systems will compel them to improve. In the first case, the authors remind us that poor school ratings simply reinforce a downward spiral. They charge that accountability rating systems are irrelevant anyway, given that parents, on average, tend to rate their childrens schools fairly favorably, and because rating systems are arbitrary and inconsistent across place and time. The last myth challenged in the volume is that schools that manage to improve, maintain those improvements over time. We are reminded that short-term goals undermine lasting change (p. 326), even while turnaround grants provide only short-term infusions of capital.
Although none of the chapters raise this point, schools are inherently places of population transiency. Every year, new student cohorts enter our schools, composed of different students with new needs, strengths, and characteristics. As advocated throughout the volume, this necessitates turnaround efforts less concerned with summative accountability outcomes and initiatives more closely focused on building stable processes and institutionalizing effective systems. The volumes contributions provide many worthy recommendations for how we as an education community might achieve this, and at the same time they bring clarity to the reasons our current turnaround regime has come up short.