District leaders are trying to avoid past mistakes as they move to turn around some of Philadelphia’s lowest-performing schools. But in implementing their Renaissance Schools plan, they appear on the verge of making new and serious blunders.
Superintendent Ackerman and her team bring a legitimate sense of urgency to the school turnaround project along with a sense of realism about the District’s limited capacity. There is no proven formula for turnaround and a limited base of research to draw upon, so they are wise not to embark on a sweeping reform program at dozens of schools on a short timeframe.
Other lessons of 2002, when community groups battled against the hiring of education management organizations, have not been totally lost on the District. This time, communities have been promised a say in selecting turnaround providers. There’s a plan for councils that involve parents, students, and staff throughout the process. Though they are not independent bodies, we think these councils could help build collaboration between communities, schools, and District staff.
What is alarming is that the Renaissance plan has been so quick to adopt the school reform flavor of the month – the notion that the best way to improve schools is to purge the staff and bring in a new team.
This approach is undoubtedly influenced by the Obama administration’s strong emphasis on drastic measures like reconstitution, school closures, and privatization at poorly performing schools. But the federal government is also encouraging a more gradual “transformation model” working with existing staff. And the District, in months spent on their plan, did not focus on rethinking their current, inadequate approach to staff development in low-performing schools.
Building up staff capacity actually has more chance at success, according to research, than starting over with new management and a new team of teachers. The essential ingredients for school success include a strong professional community, bonds with the neighborhood, and a positive school culture. In all of these, relationships are key … and sweeping out the staff means developing those from scratch.
Some of the 14 schools that have been targeted for turnaround – West Philadelphia High School comes to mind – have made recent strides toward building an effective learning community. It would be a grave error to ignore such efforts, blame the staff for continued low student performance, replace them, and start over. The District’s plan to require all staff to reapply for their jobs, with no more than half able to be rehired, risks driving everyone away. Hopefully, the District will exercise its option to take schools off the Renaissance list in March if a closer review finds growth that did not show up in earlier performance data.
Speaking of professional capacity, the District will be hard-pressed to find more than a few qualified turnaround teams to take over at the 14 schools (and at about 100 more that need help). What’s needed instead is a much more robust effort to identify and cultivate the assets that can be found even in the lowest-performing schools.
While the District’s focus has been on soliciting help from the outside, a strategy that provides opportunities and support for emerging leadership within chronically low-performing schools would be easier to scale up. Unfortunately, what is happening now under the “Empowerment Schools” model is the opposite – scripted programs based on the assumption that staff at low-performing schools need to be told exactly what to do.
We urge that, parallel to its Renaissance Schools strategy, the District create a school transformation office that can nurture efforts by its own staff to develop their own turnaround teams. Change can happen from within.