States Need Solutions for Bottom 5% Schools

Community, Leadership, State Policy

Sajan George

With the number of failing schools in America rising above 20,000, states are trying to find long-term, scalable turnaround solutions. While funding may be an important piece of the puzzle, policy makers have come to realize that funding alone won’t produce results unless there is an effective framework in place for addressing what are often deeply embedded issues.

One strategy that’s been employed by a number of states, and that’s being considered by several others, is to create “turnaround districts,” or “recovery school districts,” and give them control over a group of underperforming schools. A notable example was in Louisiana, where, after Hurricane Katrina, the state put the majority of New Orleans schools into a state-run recovery district, ran some schools directly and turned the rest over to charter school operators. This dynamic environment, with parents able to choose among district-run schools, state-run schools and charter schools, allowed for considerable improvement over a short period of time.

Today, a number of other states have either enacted or have under consideration plans to create similar types of turnaround districts. Will this model be effective if employed on a widespread basis? There are some challenges:

Local organizations interested in starting charter schools are typically interested in one school in one neighborhood. They may or may not have the wherewithal to be effective in turning around a persistently failing school and, on top of that, a one-time charter school success in one community will not solve a problem that afflicts 20,000 schools.

On the other end of the spectrum are the relatively small number of nationally-known CMOs with successful track records, but they, for the most part, prefer to start new schools, beginning with a blank slate, rather than taking over failing ones.

That’s the challenge. Once states identify and target failing schools, they will need a strategy and program designed for turnaround situations – something that is scalable and adaptable, so that it can potentially be used by educators in a wide range of environments.

But here’s some good news. Several nationally-known CMOs are already developing solutions and seeing significant signs of success. Here are some examples:

Green Dot, based in the Los Angeles area, has cultivated a “going to college” mentality within their school culture that drives student and teacher confidence and success. Green Dot schools set up college field trips at every grade level and encourage students to pursue college-related opportunities, like summer programs at local campuses. Students also work with counselors to create and update individual graduation plans based on individual interests and goals.

Mastery Schools, based in the Philadelphia area, expects excellence from its students and teachers with a “no excuses” mentality. Since many of the students come from impoverished, high-risk areas, and are likely to have experienced trauma, teachers and staff are specially trained to create a safe environment for students and instill in them the belief that they have the ability to achieve at the highest levels.

Matchbook Learning, which currently operates schools in Detroit, MI and Newark, NJ, provides each student with a laptop and access to their lessons through a technology platform called “Spark,” an innovative tool that enables teachers to move from up-front lecturing to more side-by-side facilitation, mentoring and personalized instruction. In this individualized, student-center environment, students can work at their own pace and never have to feel like they are falling behind or not being challenged enough in the classroom.

While the details of our approaches are different, there are a number of ingredients I believe are common to all of these turnaround organizations – ingredients that might form the beginnings of a model for the future:

  • A comprehensive turnaround solution needs to meet students where they are academically, work with them to figure out how they learn best, and create a positive school culture. The overall morale of a school is crucial, particularly when it has a history of persistent failure.

  • Effective turnarounds include parents, community leaders, students and staff leadership in the process. That requires constant and effective communication.

  • There must be a commitment to reviewing data regularly with principals and school leadership, including attendance records, curriculum planning, student behavior issues, budgets and other operational information. There must be accountability and a “no excuses” mentality.

  • Teachers should receive intensive training and ongoing support at a level not usually provided by most schools. Teachers need to be able to analyze and recognize student progress, provide real time feedback to students and continually re-evaluate and implement student IEPs.

  • Schools need to bring teachers, students and community leaders together to create extra opportunities and after school activities, encouraging programs that allow students to explore their interests and encourages community service and job training.

While the experiences of these organizations is encouraging, we need more to enter the fray, to learn from these experiences and build upon them. With 20,000 failing schools in this country, we need solutions that are replicable and scalable. With the types of technology, training and education models that are currently being developed and used, schools should be able to access powerful new tools to address a persistent problem that plagues our nation.

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Sajan George is CEO of Matchbook Learning. Follow Matchbook Learning on Twitter, @MatchbookLearn.

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