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Think About the System First

The New York Times last week featured a story, “Inexperienced Companies Chase U.S. School Funds” by Sam Dillon, about companies that have sought to turnaround schools but have little or no experience in doing so. Our concern about these providers is not exactly their inexperience—although of course this should raise concern. The bigger problem is that these so-called turnaround experts divert precious funding from making deeper, transformational change.

For a turnaround strategy to make a sustainable difference to a district—where the targeted schools begin to improve and systems are in place to continue improvement after the funding runs out—the first investment has to go toward restructuring the dollars that are already there. It is not news that education systems are deeply flawed. For too many years education expenses have grown, revenues have decreased, and effectiveness has stayed the same or gotten worse. Innovative programs like those provided by these experts are inevitably layered on top of old, ineffective structures. These one-off support providers can actually do a disservice to districts by devising work around systems that take the pressure off the need to redesign.

To begin to take action on turnaround from a district perspective, districts need to ask and answer these four questions:

What does each school need?

Districts need a systematic way to identify which schools are targets for dramatic turnaround efforts and to pinpoint what kind of intervention and support is needed for turnaround schools as well as other low-performing schools. Too often districts and outside providers implement a one-size-fits-all model that doesn’t match student or school needs.

What does each school get before adding new dollars? 

Before adding new resources on top, districts need to first make sure they have allocated dollars and teaching capacity equitably to schools based on need. Many turnaround schools are underfunded to start with—adding new dollars temporarily is not a sustainable solution.

How are existing resources organized?

Antiquated organizational models for schools and contracts that enforce them mean that most schools do not organize people, time, and money strategically to maximize student learning. The first step in turnaround requires rethinking how teachers and students are grouped for learning and how time is organized. Doing this will often require significant changes in district practice as well as relief from restrictive union contracts. Without making these changes, when “reform” dollars go away, the old ineffective structures remain.

What are the right interventions?

Does your district invest new dollars first to ensure that turnaround schools have strong leaders and highly-effective teaching teams who can collaborate together, diagnose individual student needs, and plan instruction that matches these needs? 

ERS will be releasing later this fall a guide that goes deeply into how to answer these questions and will provide step-by-step guidance to districts on how to develop a system-wide turnaround strategy. Stay tuned.

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