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Karen Miles’ Letter on Turnaround in Education Next

Andy Smarick makes a compelling argument that we would be better off closing failing schools, but he doesn’t take into account the stark reality that often urban districts simply have too many “failing schools” to close them all. Closing a district’s most persistently underperforming schools must be an option, but districts cannot stop there. Even the most extreme school-closure program will leave the majority of students in their current schools, many of which are also inadequate. Instead, districts must develop a comprehensive approach to address all of their turnaround schools as well as low-performing schools that don’t quite qualify for turnaround attention.

At Education Resource Strategies (ERS) we believe that districts need to make decisions about failing schools as part of a long-range, districtwide strategy that incorporates all resources: people, time, and money. While we agree with Smarick that evidence is not clear on a single turnaround strategy that works, we do know that schools can accelerate improvement through strong, transformational leaders; collaborative teacher teams; and targeting expertise and resources to help students who have fallen behind. There is a lot that districts can do to increase the probability of success: 1) Implement a districtwide strategy for measuring school performance and determining appropriate action, including the possibility of school closure; 2) Recruit transformational school leaders who can establish high expectations for improved performance; 3) Implement strategies that give these leaders the flexibility to efficiently assign teaching staff and to assemble high-performing teams with appropriate expertise; 4) Ensure sufficient expert instructional support and collaborative time for teachers to adjust instruction based on data; 5) Fund targeted student support and take the time to accelerate student learning; and 6) Provide additional problem solving and support from central staff.

A successful turnaround strategy might be as ambitious as a “cure for cancer,” as Smarick claims. So just like medical researchers, we have to keep trying. Closing schools should unquestionably be part of a school district’s strategy, but only a districtwide transformation will result in improving education for all children that the district serves.

Karen Hawley Miles
President and Executive Director
Education Resource Strategies

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