Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Meeting the Challenge of School Turnaround: Lessons from the Intersection of Research and Practice; Seven Recommendations for Turning around Low-Performing Schools May Help Leaders Facing This Challenge

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Meeting the Challenge of School Turnaround: Lessons from the Intersection of Research and Practice; Seven Recommendations for Turning around Low-Performing Schools May Help Leaders Facing This Challenge

Article excerpt

"Turnaround" has become the new buzzword in education. From states and districts paying for principals to be trained as turnaround specialists to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's call to turn around the country's 5,000 lowest-performing schools, the concept of rapid, large-scale reform in individual schools--not just incremental school improvement--has taken hold.

During the 2008-09 school year, I had the opportunity to work in one of the first turnaround high schools in Chicago Public Schools and to see what turnaround looks like "on the front lines." My view of the process was enhanced because of the positions I held during the year. As an English and social studies teacher, I taught nine groups of students in six different courses, grappled with the challenges of raising student performance and managing classroom discipline, participated in department meetings and staff development sessions, and socialized with other teachers. As director of the school's reading development team, I led professional development activities, observed teachers, administered two schoolwide reading assessments, attended leadership team meetings, and spoke regularly with the director of the district's high school turnaround program. I had more contact with more individual students than any teacher in the building, as much contact with individual teachers as any administrator in the building, and a fair amount of access to the inner workings of the administration.

This experience was particularly exciting for me because from 2004 to 2008 I researched turnaround schools with colleagues from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. Our research team reviewed the literature on low-performing schools and organizational turnaround, attended training sessions with and interviewed dozens of turnaround specialists from 18 districts in four states, visited numerous schools in the midst of turnaround initiatives, and surveyed turnaround specialists and their faculties.

From my year as a turnaround teacher and my experience as a researcher, I developed the following suggestions for those in schools and districts who are considering the possibility of school turnaround or who already are engaged in the process.

1. Ensure that more than enough resources are available.

After expending the political capital often necessary to launch a turnaround effort, the worst thing that can happen to school and district leaders is not having the resources to deliver promised reforms. Three questions should be asked before beginning a turnaround:

1. What resources will it take to turn around the school?

2. How long will these resources need to be sustained?

3. Are we willing and able to guarantee these resources?

An ideal model for achieving turnaround includes two stages. First, a school should be flooded with resources, everything from personnel to technology to discretionary funds. There should be no question that the school has everything it needs. Second, once a school has made considerable strides (after two to three years), some support should be withdrawn strategically--think of the game Jenga--to see what resources the school can do without while maintaining what has been achieved. It is possible, of course, that the second part of this model may not work. One of my colleagues in Chicago posed a question to me at the start of our turnaround process: "Can a school like ours"--with only 5% of students proficient in core subjects, in a neighborhood that had been economically depressed for decades, and where drug abuse, gang violence, and teen pregnancy were rampant--"ever succeed without all the extra resources from a school turnaround initiative?" This question stayed with me all year, and it is an important one for researchers to investigate.

Time is one resource that should be examined very closely. In schools marked for turnaround, students typically are far behind academically. …

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