The notion that America’s worst public schools can be improved by simply replacing principals and some of their teachers, is as much a part of President Barack Obama’s master plan to reform the nation’s education system as it is of Hollywood films such as Lean on Me. But a trip to Indianapolis’s Emmerich Manual High School will kill those dreams in an instant.
One of seven high schools within the sprawling Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) district, Manual is one of the nation’s worst dropout factories. Three out of every five of Manual’s students drop out before graduation, a level of academic failure that has likely persisted longer than the Circle City’s embrace of NFL football. Over the years, IPS has instituted numerous reform efforts, including the replacement of principals, to something called the Alpha Program (which monitored the classwork of Manual’s constantly bulging population of 16-year-old freshmen), and even a move funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to break up Manual into smaller high schools within the same building. None of it has met with any success.
But then, how could IPS turn around Manual when the district itself is an absolute mess? Even after reform efforts by three superintendents over the past two decades, IPS remains the worst-performing urban school district outside of Detroit’s notoriously atrocious system, with nearly all of its high schools failing to graduate more than 60 percent of their students. The woeful performance of all of its high schools back in 2005 (when the author co-wrote the first major editorial series on the nation’s dropout crisis) even shocked Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz — the man who coined the term “dropout factory” — who declared that IPS was the “the first district I have seen where all high schools are doing this poorly.”
Little has changed since then. Twenty-eight of its 64 schools are currently deemed academically failing by federal and state education officials — including some that have held the label for five consecutive years.
Considering the experience of Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan (who struggled through a modestly successful reform of Chicago’s public schools), the president should know better. Yet Obama and Duncan embrace this dubious notion. They are using $3.6 billion in federal stimulus dollars — and plan to direct billions more through the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act — towards helping states dabble in such turnaround efforts.
Unlike Race to the Top, Obama’s other reform effort isn’t addressing the systemic bureaucratic and academic problems within the districts that run these schools — or address the low quality of teaching and curricula at the heart of the problems within American public education. Nor does the plan force states to actually do the one thing that is best for children and taxpayers alike: Shut down the dropout factories and replace them with charters and traditional public schools staffed by more-competent teachers.
At the heart of Obama’s and Duncan’s turnaround effort is the School Improvement Grant (SIG), an afterthought in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that also made Race to the Top a reality. States and school districts that tap the fund must initiate any one of four “turnaround models” for the nation’s worst schools — including the 2,000 high schools responsible for more than half of the 1.2 million students dropping out each year.
Only one of the SIG models — shutting down the schools and replacing them with traditional public and charter schools — likely works (and would be the most-responsible thing to do on behalf of the kids and taxpayers stuck with the academic eyesores), but it is also the least-enticing to school bureaucrats for obvious reasons. Instead, they are latching on to the other three models. One is a rather basic turnaround that involves replacing the principal and at least half of a school’s teaching staff. The other, called the Transformative Model, involves teaching new curricula and so-called professional development for teachers (usually done during the school year at the expense of the students).
Nothing about SIG has appealed to Obama’s main foes on education reform –the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other defenders of traditional public education — nor are they pleased that he has made school turnarounds an element in his version of No Child, their longstanding bête noire. Last month, California Congresswoman Judy Chu — a longstanding ally of teachers unions — unveiled a polemic which proclaimed that SIG imposes “heavy burdens” on districts and limits their “flexibility” in teaching students. This, of course, fails to consider the even-heavier burden of failing schools on students, their parents and the rest of us who pay for them.
At least Obama and Duncan have proved willing to challenge teachers unions and traditional education circles, who have long-embraced the old chestnut that schools are failing because the students who attend them sometimes come from impoverished backgrounds. That argument is belied by the very success of charter schools such as those of the Knowledge Is Power Program, which focus on the very same poor white, black and Latino children. By promoting the expansion of charters through Race to the Top, Obama is actually fostering the kind of choice families need.
But in embracing school turnarounds, Obama and Duncan are embracing a concept similar to that of the corporate restructurings undertaken in the private sector. And this is the one time Obama shouldn’t follow Corporate America. As with the private sector, public education is littered with school turnarounds that have gone awry.
Bat-wielding principal Joe Clark’s seven-year overhaul of the notorious Eastside High School in hardscrabble Paterson, N.J. — which was dramatized by Hollywood in Lean on Me — went to seed shortly after Clark resigned amid controversy in 1989; 21 years (and numerous principals) later, it remains a dropout factory. Just 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to former Thomas B. Fordham scholar Andy Smarick; a mere nine percent of failing schools in Ohio put into restructuring improved student achievement one year later.
The fact that the turnarounds are overseen by the very districts that managed the schools into academic failure in the first place makes success anything but likely. The same culture of incompetence at the school is usually mirrored by central office bureaucrats who fail to embrace private-sector techniques for managing teaching staffs (and everything else). In Indianapolis, for example, onetime John Marshall Middle School Principal Jeffery White ran afoul of bureaucrats and IPS Superintendent Eugene White during his own unsuccessful turnaround effort of the failure mill.
The success of the NEA and AFT in assuring that teachers are insulated from all but the most-desultory forms of performance management — including dismissals — also complicates turnarounds. The laggard teachers tossed out of their old schools end up in other schools within the district, acting as a contagion of academic failure. That many of America’s teachers are poorly trained in the first place — thanks to university schools of education — also complicates any turnaround efforts.
Obama and Duncan may be better off sticking to Race to the Top, which despite its emphasis on consensus, is actually fostering (relatively) bold moves by states such as Colorado, California and even New York to ditch tenure and embrace private-sector style performance reviews. SIG was a failure even before it got off the ground because school turnarounds don’t work.
The better solution can be found among reform-minded districts such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and even Duncan’s own Chicago, which have taken the strongest steps to overhauling themselves: Shutting down dropout factories, embracing charter schools, opening higher-quality traditional schools, improving teacher quality, incorporating data-driven decision-making of the kind usually found at Google, and allowing school principals to hire and remove laggard teachers.
New York City has shut down 91 dropout factories since 2002 (which were replaced by charters and new, higher-quality traditional schools). This included Evander Childs, a notorious high school where gunplay was nearly as prevalent as the pervasive culture of academic failure. Thanks to the shutdowns, along with new schools with stronger teaching and curricula, New York City’s graduation rate has increased from a bottom-barrel 37 percent to a (slightly less atrocious) 50 percent. Declared John Thomases, an official with the New York City Department of Education : “You have to change the system in order to improve the school.”
After all, companies that fail shut down all the time. Why shouldn’t failing schools?
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