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Turning Around Troubled Schools

Posted on | June 9, 2010 | Comments Off

Markham Middle School in Los Angeles has become the poster child for the systemic failure to turn around troubled schools.

In 1997, Markham was on the bottom of the heap in 1997 when the average student scored in the 16th percentile in math and the 12th in reading.  Since then, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the state have subjected it to at least three different intervention programs costing upward of $3-million.  Still, in 2009, only 12 percent of Markham’s students scored proficient or advanced in English and 8 percent in math.  The English scores declined for 48 percent of the students, and math scores declined for 59 percent between 2008 and 2009.

One would think that drastic measures would be called for.

On a larger scale, that is exactly what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposes.  He is targeting the lowest five percent of schools nationwide. Earlier this year both he and President Barack Obama supported firing all the teachers and the principal in a Rhode Island school, repeating a school-closing-reopening strategy Duncan used when superintendent in Chicago.

However, the research on turning around failing schools suggests that the clean sweep approach isn’t particularly successful.  The lessons of turnaround efforts support thoroughness, coherence, and attention to detail rather than a single lightening bolt. (See reports from Chicago here and here.)

The first of history’s lessons concerns the failing school label.  California has 1,183 schools labeled as failing, nearly a quarter of those in the country.  Mississippi has 9.  No one thinks its schools are better than those here.  The disparity between states with high levels of labeled schools and those with few is largely a function of how tough each state’s tests and standards are.  California has shown singular courage in sticking to its relatively high standards.  Most states have not.  Setting low standards has been the predominant state policy response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Once on the failing school list, it’s hard to get off.  A recent Brookings Institution report showed that 63 percent of California schools with an eighth grade that were in the bottom quarter two decades ago remained there in 2009.  Some 2,782 schools were listed in Program Improvement status by the California Department of Education in 2009-2010.  Only 79 exited program.  Both the state and the nation have created an unmanageable number of schools to target its failing school resources. (See John Fensterwald’s report.)

History’s second lesson is that we know how to turn around these schools; it’s just hard and complicated.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research, the country’s best city-focused education policy organization, studied 200 elementary schools over a period of two decades.  It found that schools that adopted five essential supports were ten times more likely to foster substantial improvements in reading and math than those that lacked even one of them.  (Report here)

The schools that got better scored high on measures of school leadership, parent and community ties, professional capacity of the faculty, school learning climate, and instructional guidance.  None of this is surprising.  All of it reiterates the central message that solid school organization drives improvement.  Buying an intervention program or superficial adoption does not.  Improvement comes from inside.  Help and guidance can come from external sources, but there is no substitute for the school doing the hard work of self-improvement.

Indeed, as the Center for Education Policy reported, most of the schools that continued to fail, adopted similar strategies to those that were successful.  They just did it badly or experienced repeated setbacks that made the strategies not work.

Which brings us back to Markham Middle School.  It has a history of setbacks.  The simplistic response to the school’s problems is that they are rooted in the teacher union contract that causes younger teachers to be laid off in times of financial difficulty, as they were this past year.   The American Civil Liberties Union and others have sued the school district over the layoffs saying that they denied students their rights to an education.  Indeed, 20 percent of the teachers are substitutes, and some classes have gone without permanent teachers for months.  Overall, 62 percent of the teachers left last year.

But changing the union layoff rules will only begin to address the problems.  The school has been a revolving door for teachers for many years.  Teach for America teachers leave after their two year commitment is over, and others transfer to other LAUSD schools or take jobs outside the District.  For any of the five essentials to work, the school needs a stable cadre of teachers, and for that to happen it has to be seen as a place people want to work.

It also needs leadership stability, not the 9 principals in 8 years the school experienced before it became one of the Mayor’s Partnership schools.  The school has also had massive student turnover; 38 percent in the 2007-2008 school year.

Only when these two elements are in place is it possible to work on the five essential supports.

Then it needs stability and fidelity in implementing an instructional program.  Excessive emphasis has been placed on picking a best program for failing schools, and not enough on the gritty day-to-day process of implementation.  There is a daily discipline to reform.  Looking at student work.  Setting aside time in the school day for teachers to meet and clinically discuss what’s working and what is not.  Using data from classrooms to inform decisions.  Building truth and trust among teachers and students and then among the adults in a school.  These processes have to be repeated day in and day out for a couple years before they become part of the school’s DNA.

Until this happens, Markham or any school will not be able to gain the trust of parents, the same fathers and mothers who wondered aloud to the L.A. Times Hector Tobar that they learned their times tables by third grade in Durango and why does their eighth grader still struggle with them?

Until parents have confidence in the school, the churning student population won’t stop.   The policy world discounts the extent to which poor and immigrant parents engage in school shopping.  They line up for charters and magnets.  They have lively conversations about whether to move to another neighborhood or city.  Without doubt, part of the movement of student in and out of Markham and similar schools is traceable to the circumstances of poverty, so the school will always have to be structured around the realities of a community where children live in foster homes and in housing projects.  But a core of supportive parents gives a school the necessary stability and a step toward pride.

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