November 13, 2006

No one knows how to turn around a school

Eduwonk today writes the following:

Everyone likes to say that we know what works, money, class size, choice, private management, etc...but that's BS. "Turn-arounds" are complicated and hit or miss and that's not all that surprising, it's a human endeavor.

No argument here on that point. I have three concerns of various urgency about schooling:

  • The generational challenge: How to make sure my children's generation is smarter and wiser than mine.
  • The equity challenge: How to make sure we largely close inequities in educational and life opportunities.
  • The management crisis: How to identify students, teachers, schools, and systems that are truly in crisis and figure out how to help them.

In accountability, we often confuse these three issues.  Because our kids don't know everything, we often hear that all of public education is in crisis.  That's baloney.  We want schooling to improve generation to generation, but that's an eternal goal (at least for an optimistic nation), not a crisis.

Inequalities are a threat to the integrity of the society. But that's an endemic problem, and it's carried in a set of social and institutional structures that need cold analysis, not panicky treatments.

It's the last issue—individuals and systems truly in crisis (often shaped by the second one)—where we just don't have a great handle on how to address problems. Correction: We do have some ways to help kids who are in serious trouble. And I suspect there is some solid research on recovering teachers in crisis (and I mean schools recovering the talent and investment, not recovery from addictions). But organizations?  Rick Mintrop's Schools on Probation (2003) very nicely documents the dramatic variations in how schools respond to labels and interventions.

But Rick's research, and that of many others, largely tells us that organizational intervention right now doesn't work. I don't know of a large body of literature on figuring out how help schools or systems that are floundering.  NCLB fails to help and distracts in two different ways:

  • It focuses more on identification of crises than on interventions.
  • It overidentifies true crises.  It is not true that the state of Florida needs to intervene directly in the majority of schools, even though the majority of schools failed to meet AYP in the state in the last year.

Because we tend to identify loads of things as educational crises, we are not doing the hard work of separating out long-term and structural issues from short-term crises, let alone creating a realistic triage and response system.

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Posted in Education policy on November 13, 2006 12:53 PM |