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How to fix America's worst schools

One school in Chicago shows the promise and pitfalls of a federal effort to turn around the nation's bottom-tier schools.

(Page 4 of 8)

Instructors at Phillips are adamant about not teaching to low expectations. In her class, Randolph uses a "document-based questions" curriculum, which asks students to examine historical papers for evidence. Originally designed for Advanced Placement students, it is a rigorous program that she believes pushes them to think critically. On the other hand, she notes, her class is still on the American Revolution in February, and they've been working with the same question for weeks.

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"They have severe deficiencies, but that doesn't mean you stop challenging them or asking them to do what high school students should do," she says. "I'm giving up the idea that they'll know US history really really well, but hoping they'll be critical thinkers and have reading comprehension."

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Though turnarounds have been going on in some form for years, the idea first catapulted to national attention a year ago, when the school board in Central Falls, R.I., announced it was going to dismiss the entire faculty at the local high school as part of a plan to revive the failing school. Teachers and many others across the country were outraged, union members and students held rallies, and the district ultimately reversed its decision. It agreed to keep the teachers on staff in exchange for changes, including longer days, a new evaluation system, and targeted professional development.

While the board's capitulation on firings seemed to represent a public victory for teachers' unions, the turnaround movement has only accelerated since then. Some 850 schools received federal SIG money last year. Even though the majority (about 70 percent) have opted for the least restrictive "transformation" model, some 20 percent are going with the "turnaround" approach, in which most of the staff is replaced. The remaining 10 percent are restarts and closures.

None of the turnaround initiatives has caused the kind of furor that Central Falls did. In December, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, even appeared with Duncan in support of a turnaround school in Prince George's County, Md., that was replacing much of its staff.

Still, Mr. Van Roekel emphasizes that the turnaround model in general is one he opposes as harmful to both students and teachers (in the case of the Maryland middle school, the district had worked with the local union in formulating the plan).

"I don't think the research shows that when you take adults out who are part of what gives these kids continuity in their lives – I don't think this works," he says. "Yes, the culture has to change, but I believe the way you change the culture in the building is by bringing the people together to say what is it that we want. Culture can't be shifted from the outside."

No issue involving turnaround schools is more divisive than what to do with the existing teachers. Many turnaround experts – and a number of principals – argue that without replacing the staff, it is impossible to achieve the radical change that's necessary, or to get the adults to embrace it.

Unions and others say such wholesale turnovers often do away with the people who know the kids best, including many who are outstanding teachers. They argue that outside the big urban districts, it's simply not possible or practical to change the teaching staff. Parents, in particular, are often outraged to see teachers they love lose their jobs. Besides, some schools have managed to improve without replacing staff.


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