I was invited to moderate a panel of turnaround experts at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference on April 4th, and in prepping for the event I tried to think about what hasn’t been said about turnarounds over the last 10 years that we’ve been wringing our hands over them.
I’ve been to countless conferences where researchers and practitioners talk about best practices and “the thing” that they’ve isolated that might be the key to turning around “failing schools.” It’s about selecting the right instructional program. It’s the particular skills set and mindset of turnaround leaders who are a different breed from everyday principals. It’s the climate where all the adults exude confidence in the students’ ability to achieve. It’s the use of short-cycle data for continuous improvement (which is what I have said for the longest time).
The thing is, all of those statements are true while still being insufficient. We’ve been so hopeful about finding the silver bullet, yet it remains so incredibly difficult to get a school out of turnaround status and even rarer to replicate success. After over a decade of concentrated effort and so much money spent, we’re still painfully poor at turning failing schools around.
Now, it’s easy to pick apart the inadequacies and inconsistencies of turnaround approaches that are, by definition, experimental. And I don’t pretend to have the answer to this persistent problem. But rather than repeat the “what works” mantra when none of us really knows yet, my panel members and I have decided to take a different approach. We’re instead going to talk about the systemic issues in education that have helped create “failing schools” and get in the way of turning them around.
In my opinion, the continued school-level focus both misses the mark and obscures our view of the pathway to success. The arbitrary labeling of the lowest five percent as “failing” allows us to believe that those schools are doing something different and wrong, that they’re somehow outliers to an otherwise fine status quo. But are they really appreciably different from other schools in the lowest quartile, or even the lowest half? Focusing our efforts on a smaller group might make us feel a lot less overwhelmed, but if many, many more schools are actually facing similar problems, it is likely that more systematic issues are at play.
And that’s the other insidious problem with this school-level approach. When we concentrate on changing the school, it excuses the districts and states from truly examining and modifying their practices that might be—and probably are—contributing to school-level failure, not just at the lowest five percent, but across the board.
If you’re planning to be at ELC this week, I hope you’ll join us, lend us your experiences, and help push the turnaround conversation in a different direction.