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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 5 of 8)

Little knows all the arguments. He faced intense opposition from the parents of Phillips students, some of whom were particularly outraged that many of the teachers losing their jobs were African-American and many of their replacements weren't.

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"People said, 'You're firing these people?' But it ain't about the adults. School is about the kids," says Little. "If you bring too many people back, then it's not a turnaround. It's very difficult when you have a big mess to sort through to find the star. And the time and energy you'll put into that, and then you make a wrong choice? It can be disastrous.... We already have to break the mentality of the students. It's difficult if I have to break the mentality of teachers and students."

Still, when teachers are moved out, the process can be complicated as well as controversial. In Chicago, tenured teachers let go at a turnaround school have one year to find another job – about 70 percent of them do so – but in some districts, they're just reassigned to other schools. (The lack of job protection is one reason turnarounds in general, and AUSL in particular, are highly unpopular with the local union in Chicago, even though teachers at Phillips are unionized.)

And if there's no pipeline to bring in outstanding new teachers and principals, any effort to do turnarounds on a large scale is likely to either drain good teachers from other schools or simply run up against a paucity of qualified people. A recent analysis by The New York Times found that among eight states that accounted for more than 300 of the federal turnaround schools this year, an average of 44 percent retained their principal from the previous year.

The SIG guidelines allow schools to keep principals if they were hired within the past three years, but the data seemed to suggest a lack of talent available, at least at the administrative level.

"Part of it has to be making the tide bigger and investing in the training of teachers," says Timothy Cawley, a senior manager at AUSL. "If you're just rearranging the chairs, it doesn't make sense."

Mr. Cawley believes the model that AUSL has created is ideal. Its teacher residency program benefits by ensuring that teachers go to high-needs schools, where they serve with other teachers who share their approach. They continue to work closely with AUSL coaches. The schools benefit because they don't need to recruit so many teachers, who in turn embrace what the principal is doing. "It gets off to a faster start," says Cawley.

More programs are springing up to train staff to handle troubled schools, including one at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, which helps experienced principals get the skills they're likely to need to run a turnaround project.

Another group, New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS), headquartered in New York, is focused on building what is essentially a national bullpen of turnaround specialists. The group has trained 400 principals for high-poverty schools since 2006, but plans to develop some 2,000 leaders over the next four years, according to Jean Desravines, the NLNS director.

Some cities are looking for inventive ways to entice existing "stars" to work in failing schools. In 2008, Peter Gorman, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district, held a competition to determine the most effective local principals. Then he offered the winners the chance to work at one of the worst schools in the district.


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