Teachers take on turnaround strategies

On Tuesday, August 31, the Teachers Letters to Obama group will sponsor a webinar roundtable: “TurnAround This Policy.” A panel of teachers, including some who have experienced these policies firsthand, will lead the discussion. Teachers, parents, and others interested in education reform will share what these policies really do (and don’t do) for schools, and what alternatives there are that can really make a difference.  Roundtable is from 8:30 to 10 pm EDT; 7:30 to 9 pm CDT; and 5:30 – 7 p.m. PDT. You can register for free here.

A few months back, I made the following observations about school turnaround policies:

Underperformance in Mississippi Delta schools is not a recent phenomena. We have at least twenty years of various types of data showing how the predominantly Black and poor schools of the Delta have consistently lagged behind the rest of the state. The state itself is consistently near the bottom on nationwide comparisons, due in large part to the poor performance of Delta schools. Notably, this entire section of the state has also been a chronic teacher shortage area for at least twenty years. A disproportionate number of the classrooms here have been staffed by underprepared, temporary, or out-of-field personnel. Ironically, it is also relatively easy to remove an incompetent teacher in Mississippi, yet it almost never happens; only here there is no union contract or tenure system on which to hang the blame.

In spite of all that, Delta schools also have some of the most outstanding teachers, anywhere. Teachers who are devoted to their students; teachers who help those students make incredible academic progress each year against staggering odds; teachers who choose to live and work in the Delta when they could have gone elsewhere. These are attributes teachers in poor rural areas, such as the Delta, share with many of our beleaguered colleagues working at struggling inner city schools. In their book The Teaching Gap, James Stigler and James Hiebert back in 1999 showed us that the U.S. did not need a wholesale replacement of its teaching force; we needed to support and fully develop our professionally trained educators. That sage advice, based on careful comparisons to education systems in competitive nations has gone largely unheeded. By most estimates, school districts, even the more affluent ones, spend less than 5% of their budget on professional development of teachers. This continues even though we now have a growing body of evidence on the impact of teacher quality on student learning.

This is one reason I am disappointed that in its Blueprint for the Reauthorization of ESEA, the U.S. Department of Education has sanctioned only four “turnaround” strategies for struggling or failing schools. Three of those involve the removal of teachers; only one addresses (though not directly enough) building on the strengths of existing staff. How can we justify such a waste of human resources, of human beings? Yet, the same document calls for an elevation of the teaching profession and greater efforts to retain teachers. I am hard-pressed to understand how increasing the job insecurity of teachers in the schools where we need them most will help make the profession more attractive to potential teacher candidates, especially in poor rural school districts such as those here in the Delta?

Events in recent months, particularly in those places where schools have been reconstituted have only served to strengthen my view that wholesale removal of teachers is not the recipe for helping failing schools. What would help? Besides what I outlined above about doing more to maximize the teaching quality of our more of our current teacher force, why not look at schools that have experienced real, long-term “turnaround” success, such as this one highlighted at Public School Insights. *

Have any of you experienced “school reconstitution”? How has it affected your school and community?

*P.S., going to miss the work of Claus von Zastrow at Public School Insights, but wish him well on his new adventure!