Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Art of Saving a Failing School: While Some Legislators Believe That Closing Failing Schools Is the Smarter Choice, Many Schools Can Be Turned around with Strong Leadership, Effective Communication, and Immediate Action

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Art of Saving a Failing School: While Some Legislators Believe That Closing Failing Schools Is the Smarter Choice, Many Schools Can Be Turned around with Strong Leadership, Effective Communication, and Immediate Action

Article excerpt

Trying to turn around failing schools has become the newest academic cottage industry, with many colleges and universities taking on this work. Apparently, they haven't heard Joseph Murphy's sobering suggestion that "not all failing schools are worth saving" (2010).

"When a school is facing failure, sometimes fighting to restore what shouldn't be saved is neither wise policy nor in the best interest of youngsters," Murphy contends.

That sentiment receives strong support from a recent study of charter and traditional public schools done by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "Few low-performing schools in either sector--barely 1%--managed to dramatically improve their academic performance over this five-year period, and fewer than 10% made even moderate gains," the authors said. "We conclude that it is easier to close a low-performing school than to turn one around. Rather than pushing dubious turnaround efforts, charter authorizers and education policy makers alike should ramp up their efforts to close bad schools, particularly in cases where higher-performing schools are nearby " (Stuit, 2010).

How should educators and the public respond to the suggestion that most failing schools either need a complete makeover or aren't worth saving? And what message are we sending the students and parents of such schools, and their respective communities in general, if we allow them to believe their schools should be kicked to the curb or used as a research laboratory? Hearing that America's students are becoming less competitive globally with each successive year is depressing enough, but it's worse to hear that we should either reinvent how schools operate or give up on some schools because the turnaround task is simply too daunting.

I don't dispute the Fordham Institute's findings, nor do I disparage university efforts to save failing schools, but I vehemently disagree with their all-or-nothing approach. My experience with failing schools, coupled with my research on this subject, have led me to the sobering conclusion that most failing schools are the product of poor leadership and improper management--nothing more, nothing less. Furthermore, there's ample evidence that bona fide education leaders, supported by motivated and highly qualified teams of teachers and administrators, are not only capable of transforming failing schools, they can make them successful within three to five years. First and foremost, we must acknowledge that only the best school principals and the best classroom teachers are capable of doing this difficult work. As Heather Peske and Kati Haycock said clearly, "The very children who most need strong teachers are assigned, on average, to teachers with less experience, less education, and less skill than those who teach other children" (2006). My experiences show that this logic is unfortunately applied to school leaders as well.

Turnaround experience

Since my retirement from the Marine Corps almost 10 years ago, I've been privileged to assume the leadership role at two failing charter schools in North Carolina, and I'm currently consulting for a third. In each case, students' academic performance as measured by North Carolina's high-stakes tests was abysmal at the outset. In addition, the average free or reduced lunch rate of the three schools was 75% (ranging between 50% at the first school and 90% at the last one).

When I arrived at my first school (K-8) in 2002, only 43% of the students were at grade level on the statewide exam; in the second school (K-8), fewer than 30% of the students were at grade level in 2006; and, in my current school (K-12), just over 20% of the middle/high school students and only 50% of the elementary students were at grade level in 2010.

The results: After three years, 79% of students in my first school were at grade level; in my second school, the figure was 64% after three years; and after one year at my current school, almost 36% of the middle and high school students and more than 80% of the elementary students are at or above grade level. …

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