This letter originally appeared in Education Week, March 8, 2016.
To the Editor:
In the Commentary "When 'Opportunity' Is Anything But" (Jan. 27, 2016), the authors highlight that many state takeovers aren't working. They correctly emphasize that applying a "cookie-cutter approach" to school turnaround is not likely to yield positive results. Our experience working with districts sheds light on why this might be.
Effective turnaround needs to start by carefully looking at the systems, structures, and practices that contribute to a school's "failing," and then strategically targeting action and support to remediate the problems. Addressing these challenges requires a solid understanding of the distribution and organization of resources—people, time, and money—and adjusting them equitably and strategically, according to student need.
Another structural requirement to scaling turnaround is to have teacher- and principal-evaluation systems and practices that provide growth-oriented feedback and enable targeted support, while also identifying teachers and principals who are less effective.
Massachusetts is a good example of a state customizing its approach for schools and districts, as well as requiring and supporting structural changes to contracts, time, funding, and school portfolio for longer-term success. Lawrence, Mass., is beginning to show how this approach can bring quick wins while moving toward sustainable growth, according to a case study of the district that my organization carried out.
In Lawrence, the state-appointed superintendent, Jeff Riley, quickly assembled his own strong leadership team, which instituted quick changes, such as adding tutors and providing support to ensure effective team-teaching. Simultaneously, the leadership team worked on underlying structures, such as career paths and compensation for teachers, the organization of high schools, and extended learning time. The approach is paying off with consistently improving test scores and a high school graduation rate that increased by 40 percent between 2010 and 2015.
The fact that many state efforts fail shouldn't be a reason for not striving to understand how states in tandem with districts can ensure the urgent action that failing schools need to improve for the long-haul.