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The Illogic of School Turnarounds

January 17, 2011

Is your school struggling?  Do you have an idea why?  Could a huge influx of new funding help you pay for improvements that help students?  Okay, tell us your plan:  we’ve got plenty of money to help turn your school around!  But first, fire your principal.

What’s that?  You think the principal is actually doing a good job under difficult circumstances?  You think the school can succeed under the same leadership?  You think continuity in leadership will help?  Okay, we’ll still give you the money, but first, fire half of the teachers.

What’s that?  You think that more than half of the teachers are actually doing a good job under difficult circumstances?  You think that the school can succeed with the same teachers and that continuity will help when you have the resources you need?  Okay, we’ll still give you the money, but first, change into a different school.

What’s that?  You think that changing into a different school would actually be disruptive and illogical?  Okay, we’ll still give you the money, but first, close the school entirely.

The illogic of school turnaround models hit close to home last week, as I unfolded my San Francisco Chronicle and read on the front page, “Struggling SF schools ousting half their teachers.” The turnaround models are not news, but the effects of federal policy are now starting to be felt more frequently at the local level.  I have a feeling there will be many people wondering how we ended up in this mess, with a policy that offers so little local flexibility, and makes so little sense.  Here’s a sampling of perspectives reported by Jill Tucker in the Chronicle article:

“[Replacing half of the teachers is] probably the least desirable option of all the options,” said Deputy Superintendent Richard Carranza. “It wouldn’t have been our first choice at all.”

Bryant parent Maribel Duran-Mejia said she feared that losing so many teachers at her son’s school would be traumatic for students.

“Change is hard for the children,” she said. “I am satisfied with my child’s teacher.”

But more than anything, she worried beloved teachers would be among those to volunteer [to leave and bring the turnover rate to 50%].

Teachers are not the problem or cause of low test scores, she said. Schools like Bryant would be well served if teachers were better supported with the resources they need to do their jobs. That’s been lacking, Duran-Mejia said.

“They don’t feel supported,” she said of the teachers.The local teachers union helped the district craft the process, but begrudgingly.


It’s an unnecessary and unproven way to reform schools, said Dennis Kelly, president of the United Educators of San Francisco.

“We don’t believe there’s any particular sense to this model,” he said. “We do not think this is a step in the right direction.”


At Bryant, where at least five of the school’s 14 teachers will be replaced, parents met Wednesday morning to hear how the process will unfold. Two teachers at the school were replaced earlier this year.

District officials are asking teachers at all three schools to volunteer for a transfer. Doing it that way rubs against the implicit intent in the federal policy: to remove unproductive teachers from struggling schools.

Instead, the district’s approach encourages teachers to leave if they don’t feel they are a good fit for the time-consuming task of overhauling a school.

Carranza said a system is in place to identify struggling teachers and help them become better teachers or help get them out of the profession.

“In some school systems, folks have used this as an opportunity to clean house,” Carranza said. “We’re coming from a point of view that teachers aren’t bad. It’s about a fit.”

So there you have it.  San Francisco will implement an unsanctioned approach to an illogical policy that replaces most local decision making to conform to inflexible federal policies.  It makes little sense educationally, but this policy couldn’t be any more politicized.  It might appeal to some of President Obama’s supporters in the so-called education reform camp, but it didn’t please civil rights leaders and organizations, and I doubt it’s going to win over many voters who are just wondering why the their kids’ principals and teachers had to be replaced in an arbitrary manner.  Whether it works or not, the policy will have pushed out principals and teachers who might very well have been the best-suited to improve their schools once the support arrives.  These policies have not been debated or selected locally, and they will disregard the input and wishes of parents, teachers, and district leaders.  And when the money runs out…

In an effort to further understand the policy and gain an additional perspective, I contacted Rachel Norton, an member of the San Francisco School Board whose blog I often read.  I posed five questions to her about school improvement grants and school turnaround models, and she was kind enough to send some very interesting answers that I’ll post here soon.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2011 4:45 am

    I find it interesting that I cannot locate any evidence that major changeovers (firing staff, reorganizing, rebuilding) actually change student performance. Change the teachers, change the administrators, rebuild the school…maybe the one variable that isn’t “reformed” in all this is actually the root of it: the student.

    It’s really interesting: when my students do the homework I assign, follow directions, and apply the learning they’ve practiced in class, their grades go up. When they don’t, their grades go down. Could it be, that perhaps student choice as to whether to invest effort might be a piece of this puzzle? And I don’t buy into the premise that if a child doesn’t do schoolwork that it is the teacher’s fault for not making that schoolwork interesting enough. The teacher cannot do it all, the student has to step and do their part… no one of us can control the will of a child so much to make them pick up a pencil if they refuse to. Unfortunately, as I’ve stated elsewhere, we don’t have the guts in this country to actually have a conversation about that point without someone shouting “don’t blame the children!” and coddling those from whom we really ought to be demanding more.

    • Mona permalink
      January 18, 2011 1:30 pm

      Major changeover like rebuilding and restructuring existing varaibles in education sytem may not be acceptable at the expense of firing existing teachers and staff. Using availble resources and making best out of it is a better way.
      For example, Instead of firing exiting Principal or teachers, lets get them appropriate training, Professional Development and give them objectives to acheive that aligns with goals of a particular School District and/or Education Department. Without thorough training Teachers and Principals are bound to fail, especially in LA urban Schools.
      Further, firing Teachers and Principals can never be the solution. After cutting roots one cannot expect the tree to grow and florish. Using availble resources to rebuild with thorough training and supervision is a better idea. Firing Principal or firing teachers would simply create panic and mistrust in teaching career- no one would like to be a teacher due to such insecurities or fire and hire.
      To sum, rebuild from available resources via means of thorough training programs and supervision of growth of existing resources after training, is a feasible way to improve.

  2. Tom White permalink
    January 18, 2011 8:11 am

    Well done. A sad chronicle of how bad policy begets worse practice


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