clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Voices: Lesson learned on turnarounds and closure: Be bold

Veteran educator turned consultant Peter Huidekoper, Jr., argues that dramatic change is the only way to improve struggling schools.

In writing “A call for conversation around closing schools” on these pages in May, I was eager to hear reasons, beyond the ten I provided, why closure might not be the best way to address chronically low-performing schools. I was especially grateful to Bruce Jones, who—among the responses—offered three comments. A key point he made deserves a closer look: haven’t most examples of turnarounds in Denver—to date—proved unsuccessful? If so, why should we continue with this policy?

Why indeed?

On May 18, Jones wrote:

Lets look at the recent turnaround, redesigned schools from DPS. Starting in 1996 just to name a few there is Fairview, Greenlee, Smedley, Remington, Horace Mann, Trevista, Gilpin and there are many more not listed. The percentage that have showed overwhelming academic growth than before these board directed changes is minimal. Look at the current 3rd grade CSAP results as a continuing indicator of why this policy is a failed concept.

To which Alex Ooms responded the next day:

Bruce, I don’t think that is true. I will agree that it is hard to call the new schools the District has started a success, but don’t kid yourself on the underperformance of the schools they closed. Here is a more substantive look.

Jones answered on May 20, first noting that the Donnell-Kay report was over a year old, lacking 2012 data, then adding:

[C]an you objectively look at the data and state the children of northwest are “better off” now at Trevista then when they attend Smedley and/or Remington? This turnaround model set back a whole generation of learners.

Two points. First, that Donnell-Kay report included a useful warning about half-hearted “change efforts” that may have led to the sorry results that Jones—and many others—have seen. Two of its primary observations were:

Strive for excellence, not improvement: Academic proficiency across Denver has historically left most students ill-prepared for the challenges of college or career. Marginal improvements will not bridge this chasm of academic preparation. The district needs to focus on creating new schools that are doing not just marginally but substantially better than average.

Change efforts that do not work. Denver’s most challenged schools, after a district redesign, virtually never outperform DPS averages. Improvements, particularly in the secondary grades, are marginal when they occur at all. These turnaround efforts need to be changed substantially or ended altogether. It is neither responsible policy nor practice to continue to devote considerable resources into the same efforts, particularly when the data, both here and nationally, continues to show that these efforts rarely yield results.

In short, its emphasis was not that turnaround efforts had failed as much as it was that they had not yet been tried. Most were too constrained, unwilling to truly tackle the full dimensions of the school’s woes.

My second point: the tone of those observations — if we are going to do this, it must be about dramatic change, not the old model of school improvement—is increasingly the consensus view among those studying effective turnarounds. For Jones is surely right to say that too many efforts that have fallen well short of expectations. Over $53 million in federal dollars (the School Improvement Grant, or SIG) has come to Colorado to turn around over 30 of our lowest-performing schools since 2010. Too much of that money—as this Denver Post’s series implied —has been, tragically, misspent.

This lesson — half-baked, half-hearted efforts won’t even get us halfway to our goal — was stressed in the February report presented to the Colorado State Board, “Turnarounds in Colorado: Partnering for Innovative Reform in a Local Control State.” Implementation of SB 163 — the Education Accountability Act — will bring state intervention where low-performance has persisted for way too long. The report pounded away on the notion that cautious efforts have failed. Here is where I think Jones is fair. But rather than abandon turnaround efforts, the report counseled bold action. (All bold—no pun intended!—mine.)

In Colorado, over 82,000 students – about 10 [percent] of all students in the state – attend schools that are persistently low-performing. …

Schools that fail to meet the needs of their students for years, even decades, have been a stubborn challenge for school reform. Pouring funds into these schools to implement the usual school improvement strategies has been, quite literally, a waste of money. The realization that these schools require a completely different approach has been brought to light through recent research, and is reflected in this report.

Chronically low-performing schools are not likely to be turned around solely by interventions that tinker around the edges, even if these interventions are based on actions that are generally considered to be good educational practice. To meet the expectation that dramatic improvements will occur within one to two years, successful turnarounds generally require a fundamental disruption in the culture and practices of the school. This disruption allows effective turnaround practices to occur, and also signals the commitment to dramatic change.

As in other states, Colorado has invested significant federal, state, and local funds in incremental efforts to turn around low-performing schools. These “light touch” interventions typically involve coaching and training for staff, and may include introducing different school models with the current staff. These efforts, and their failures to result in dramatic and sustainable improvement, have been well-documented, both in Colorado and nationally. No one doubts that these actions were taken by educators who cared very much about their students – but it cannot be denied that the vast majority of these efforts have not succeeded.

At the Colorado Department of Education’s Turnaround Summit on May 16, 2013, Justin Cohen, President of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education, echoed this theme: “Most efforts to improve schools are ‘light-touch,’ programmatic initiatives that don’t ‘pull multiple levers at once.’”

Mass Insight’s definition of turnaround is robust, unlike some of our anemic “transformations” that merely seek a bump in “academic growth to over 55 [percent] in reading and math in two years.” Good grief! At that rate, in our lowest-performing elementary schools, most second graders still won’t leave fifth grade — four years later — as proficient. Not good enough.

Instead, Mass Insight defines turnaround as:

a dramatic and comprehensive intervention in low-performing schools that produces significant gains in achievement within two years; and readies the school for the longer process of transformation into a high-performance organization.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg struck a similar chord at the Turnaround Summit: “Changes that go half-way aren’t going to have the results you want to have for kids,” he said. “Where we’ve made compromises – on looking back – we regret them. [But] where we’ve been willing to take the political slings and arrows, we feel better.”

Among his regrets, I imagine, are the way DPS schools like Gilpin ($1.2 million), Greenlee ($2.2 million), and North ($3.1 million) received the SIG funds over the past three years without major change or improvement. Perhaps most rewarding, on the other hand, has been the early promise of the new schools in the Denver Summit Schools Network in the Far Northeast, which came about after contentious community debate. (Again, as I wrote in May, I appreciate the hurt and anger in a neighborhood when it responds to a school being shut down or phased out, and how difficult this process can be.) A Plus Denver found enough encouraging news after year one to report:

Seven out of the 11 turnaround schools in the Summit Schools Network showed growth, with some demonstrating significant growth over 2011.… High Tech Early College, McGlone Elementary and Green Valley Elementary all recorded significant growth scores, with some being in the range of 70 percent and above. This is the first time targeted Turnaround schools managed by DPS have shown such robust growth scores.

Clearly, it is still early. But the first year’s results indicate most of the turnaround efforts in Far NE Denver are working.

My conclusion: Jones and others who shake their heads at much of what we have done the past 10-15 years under the so-called “turnaround” banner are right. Far too many disappointments. No question. But every message we now hear is: Our failures have been due, in large part, to not having gone far enough. To compromises that have accepted half-measures. To a lack of courage and boldness.

“These schools require a completely different approach.” “Fundamental disruption.” I understand why some still consider closure, phase outs, restarts, and new schools too radical. And yet the evidence grows: “dramatic change” is the only way to produce the change we seek.

A better choice, yes, than to allow your second grader to move along in that forever low-performing school for another three years, while we tinker at the edges?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.