Trusting a system that hasn’t always been trustworthy

I believe in school turnaround – the principle of drastically improving schools for students who’ve been disenfranchised and historically neglected by the education system, and that turning around a school is actually possible. That said, turning around schools is not easy, and most importantly, we have to trust that those making decisions that affect all of us are making those decisions for the right reasons.

Chicago is in the midst of a(nother) school turnaround/closure battle and while I disagree with many of the opponents claims, some of their points do make me wonder if and how turnaround has been used for political or personal gain. I want to trust that politicians are making decisions with children’s futures in mind, but sometimes it’s difficult to defend the policies when confronted with opposing data, claims and facts.

A common criticism that I see, read about, and hear in Chicago (and across the country) is that “turnarounds don’t work.” First, it’s important to remember that a large percentage of turnarounds in the business sector fail. Turning around a business (like turning around a school) is extremely difficult, and it requires all involved to change the status quo, to implement changes with fidelity, an infusion of resources, and most importantly in my opinion, a strong leader.

School turnaround is possible, but it also requires all of the above components. A turnaround effort will flounder if we only partially implement reforms (which I see all the time), if the entire community doesn’t support the efforts, if real (and lasting) changes aren’t embraced, if we don’t fully fund the reforms, and if there isn’t a strong leader to guide the entire effort at the school and district levels. Combining all of these factors (and more) in one effort is difficult to accomplish, so we should not expect every school turnaround to be successful.

A recent analysis by Chicago Public Radio/Catalyst Chicago  found that “Eighteen percent of the replacement schools (those schools located in buildings where either closure or turnaround has occurred) were rated “Level 1” by CPS this year, the highest performance level. Nearly 40 percent of replacement schools are Performance Level 3, the lowest rating CPS gives.” So, while 40% of the schools are still underperforming, that means that 60% are doing better, and in some cases they are doing significantly better. The data is also based on CPS’ performance ratings, which include a variety of indicators (including absolute/current status, trend and value-added student performance measures; as well as other indicators, such as attendance, AP enrollment & success, etc).To truly analyze school performance during a turnaround effort we should focus on the improvement (i.e. trend and value-added) data points. The fact that only 20% of students meet or exceed reading proficiency targets tells us nothing about how well that school is actually teaching students now. We must look at what students are learning, not what they do or don’t know.

Another common claim, and fact, is that “Turnarounds disproportionately impact poor and minority neighborhoods.” Part of the issue here is that turning around a school isn’t just about changing what happens within the walls of the school building, but it requires changes to the surrounding community. The Chicago Public Radio/Catalyst analysis also reported that Chicago’s turnarounds are concentrated in the West and South sides of the city, and are often located near former Chicago Housing Authority developments.

This should not be surprising. Due to a myriad of reasons over many years, including discriminatory and unfair practices and policies, these parts of the city received less funding, less support, fewer well-prepared teachers and principals. It is not surprising that these schools, and their surrounding communities, continue to struggle and require extreme changes to turn around years (if not decades) of unfair treatment. The students in these schools require additional supports to catch up to their same-age peers in other parts of the district, so equal funding or treatment is not sufficient. Providing an equivalent education to these students requires unequal (i.e. more) funding and different policies and practices.

Yes, a turnaround will change the community, could be disruptive, and cause temporary tension, but I struggle to understand why parents and communities continue to fight to keep their perpetually failing schools open. If a turnaround is done well (i.e. if administrators and politicians are truly closing or turning around schools because they are not educating students, if the plan is implemented with fidelity, and the incoming operator was chosen because they are the best fit for that community), then we have to believe that what will result from the changes will be better for our children. The historical mistrust is valid (and in many cases deserved), but one fact remains — these schools are not currently meeting the needs of the children or the community.

Do I agree with every decision CPS has made regarding turnaround and school closures? Of course not. But, the bottom line is that what we’re doing now in these schools isn’t working, so we have to try something different. What that “something” is may vary, but we must try anything and everything to improve the educational opportunities for these students. They deserve better.

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