In a news report on President Obama’s legacy, one commentator stated that is focus on eliminating failing schools would survive. These are the ‘turn around’ schools where most students do not meet state proficiency levels. Some say that the goal to have all students be proficient is like assuming all students must be ‘above average’. Proficiency standards, however, are set at levels most but not all students are expected to reach. The expectations are an ever increasing target. As achievement goes up, standards go up.
It is a trap, however, to excuse low performance because students have not been expected or even required to do better. Is there an escape hatch?
When these low performing students are concentrated in certain schools, their plight becomes public and schools are blamed. The State and the U.S. government respond by promoting ‘turn around’ strategies. The current ‘key to success’ is a highly qualified aggressive principal who will change expectations and perhaps half or more of the school staff. Sometimes this works—or seems to for awhile. More often if there is any progress, it is slow.
What successful principals are able to do fits a pattern. They actively interact with families by questioning why a child is missing school. Some of these children miss a lot and/or their families move around. Principals also track individual student progress on skills and hold staff meetings to find approaches to support a particular child’s learning problem. They provide behavioral support services and incentives for students to achieve. They offer extra time and tutoring during and after school. They help students, parents and teachers learn coping strategies for life’s stresses and strains. They confront discipline problems using a system approach that offers ‘constructive time out’ in school rather than suspensions.
Effective change seems to take a high energy focused drive to succeed that is supported by additional community funding and volunteers. Not every struggling school can find and keep such a leader much less the teachers on the front lines. Not every successful turn around school continues to retain its struggling students. Some just quit or transfer to another school. If turn around simply means getting rid of enough struggling students to increase school grades, as so often happen in corporate charters, then we are simply shifting not solving the problem.
Where these ‘turned out’ students then get concentrated in a school, it can create much worse problems. We see this now in areas where charter and private schools have ‘creamed’ the children from more supportive families and left the area’s public school with a high concentration of children with disabilities and behavioral dysfunctions. Teachers tend to walk out in frustration.
There are some ‘success’ stories to tell. Here are a few:
Palmetto elementary in Florida was a turn around school. It went from an ‘F’ grade to an ‘A’ in one year. The next year was a ‘C’ and last year was a ‘D’. By all accounts, the principal is outstanding and she recruited half of her staff. What happened?
Chattanooga All Girls charter school made outstanding achievement gains. It also had night school for some students who could not manage during the day. It raised twenty nine percent of its budget from private schools–about $4500 per student. And then, a number of girls simply left the school.
The Florida State Board of Education (SBE) has set a goal to cut the number of turn around schools in half by 2020. Some board members want to have the authority to hire and fire principals to reach that goal. The Florida Education Association and School Board Associations disagree. Districts know best how to manage schools to meet local needs. Attempts by the SBE to take control may lead to yet another court battle.
The U.S. Department of Education provides funding for turn around schools through its Title I School Improvement Grants (SIG) program. In 2014, Florida was awarded $25,969,575 for struggling schools. The money will help support needed staff. Finding that one in a thousand principal with the charisma, drive, and knowledge to turn around a school takes more than money. In our district, moving principals is a little like playing musical chairs. Principals are moved to find the right fit for each school’s needs. One school’s star could be a failure in another.
Concentrated poverty, however, may create more challenges in those schools than even the best people can meet over time. Charters, in order to survive, often restrict the number of academic and behavioral problems they will accept. Thus, low income district schools get more than their fair share. Some districts, like Newark tried to share the load across all schools. This approach meant giving up neighborhood schools, but the complicated logistics created a local revolt. New Orleans turned to all charters, but the charters are not classified by family income levels. Is there a better way? Hoping for individual miracles just is not enough.