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Answer Sheet
Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/01/2012

A new approach to school turnarounds (or ‘old dogs CAN learn new tricks’)

This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 years teaching science at a high-needs school and six years as a mentor and coach of teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher. A version of this post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue .

By Anthony Cody

At a recent Education Writers Association conference on School Improvement, I was a bit of a contrarian. Many speakers suggested we need to “break the culture” at failing schools. A number suggested that the reason federal policies were not working was because too many schools were choosing the least disruptive option from the four allowed, and therefore were not firing enough of their lackluster staff. I asked one speaker if perhaps we might rethink the need to fire so many teachers given the recent research on the negative effects turnover has on student achievement. “That depends,” he replied, “on whether you think old dogs can learn new tricks.”

The data emerging from the current generation of turnarounds, many of which have embodied this “fire and replace” approach, have been disappointing. Even defenders are backpedaling, saying we must “recalibrate expectations.” Perhaps we need to do a bit more than recalibrate.

Here’s a different approach than that given by most of the turnaround experts at the conference. I started with the story of the high-poverty Oakland middle school where I taught for 18 years. This is what I learned there.

After I had been there about 10 years, I became chair of the science department. Our principal suggested we apply for a professional development grant, so we brainstormed about our biggest challenges.

In the science department, staff turnover was a big one.We were losing two or three teachers a year from our department of 10. As new research suggests, this turnover made improvement hard to sustain. Experienced teachers at our school had become a bit jaded about the newer teachers. Why should they invest energy and materials on someone who will be gone, maybe even before the year ends? This attitude, of course, tended to reinforce the turnover issues, and undermine the collaboration we needed to improve.

Our school was hardly unique in this regard. In fact, some Oakland middle schools experience turnover as high as 50% or 60% a year! And the higher the level of poverty, the greater the challenges are that these teachers face. This, combined with lower salaries than schools in more prosperous communities, tends to make turnover a chronic problem.

So we set as our goal the retention of all the teachers in our department. Each experienced teacher became a mentor to a newer teacher. They met weekly, and shared management strategies and curriculum. We collaborated as a department to share ideas and resources, and went on several team-building retreats. When the next year began we had retained everyone.

The following year we were able to raise the level of our work, and we expanded to the math department, so, at that point, there were about 16 of us working together.

In the first year, our meetings were focused more on supporting the new teachers, but in the second year, we shifted to take on deeper strategies. We engaged in lesson study, and worked together on our assessment practices. The school saw its math scores improve every year, and we hosted a successful Family Science and Math event. The 6th graders arrived at our school performing at around the 33rd percentile, and by the 8th grade were past the 50th percentile. A few years later, we spread this model to a district-wide program, called TeamScience, which has worked for the past four years to pair novice science teachers with experienced mentors.

We found that we did NOT need to fire anyone in order to improve. Instead, of trying to ferret out the weakest links, we sought to RETAIN everyone. Can “old dogs learn new tricks?” Yes. And old dogs KNOW a lot of valuable tricks, and if they are honored for this knowledge, and engaged in rich processes like Lesson Study and teacher research, they can build on what they know, and share it as well.

Unfortunately there is a sad chapter to this story as well. As this was taking place, No Child Left Behind came along, and our school failed to make adequate yearly progress several years running. It broke the school’s spirit to be cast as failures year after year. Staff meetings were taken over by data experts telling us how to target the students most likely to yield statistical gains. Just as school culture can be purposefully built, it also can be destroyed, and it was. Only one science teacher remains there from the team we built.

Most of our efforts to turn around low-performing schools assume there is little of value in place at these schools, in terms of the teachers, administrators, and school culture. Thus there is no consideration given to what is lost when teachers or administrators are replaced. The research on the negative effects of staff turnover is a huge clue that we have missed something very important here.

Furthermore, many turnaround schools themselves have very high turnover, even after they have been turned around. In Chicago, this report shows that the four turnaround schools that opened in 2008 now have only 41% of the teachers that were there at the start. Part of the turnaround strategy often involves a heavy investment in training these teachers, which is lost when they leave. It is hard to understand how a stable climate can be maintained and lasting change achieved when there is such a level of churn.

There is another way. As we learned at my school, setting a goal to retain everyone and building a supportive collaborative community can create the conditions we need in order to grow as teachers, and improve outcomes for students. Others are having success with similar approaches. The National Education Association has a project called the Priority Schools Campaign, which is working with 39 schools in 17 states across the country. They are emphasizing family community partnerships, and building on the strengths each school has. The American Federation of Teachers has an interesting project in one of the most economically challenged communities in the nation. Reconnecting McDowell is working in West Virginia to make school improvement the linchpin for a revitalization of the whole community. The California Teachers Association has also been active in leading reform by helping lower class size and provide time for teacher collaboration through the Quality Education Investment Act, which they helped sponsor. This has yielded strong results in high-poverty schools. Many of Chicago’s democratically controlled neighborhood schools are doing better than turnarounds that have received millions of extra dollars over the past few years.

I believe the Department of Education has made a fundamental error with its turnaround strategies, and we ought to turn them upside down. Instead of policies that call for the firing of teachers, we are likely to gain much more by creating schools capable of supporting, developing and retaining them. Of course there will still be individual teachers who need to be ousted, but this should be the job of an effective principal. Our overall strategy will be far more successful when we make it our challenge to keep our teachers and help them grow.

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