When an Education Reformer says “Turnaround” — Don’t!

Education Advocate Wendy Lecker has another column out and it is once again in the “MUST READ” category.

Her latest piece is part one of a multi-series takedown of those who use fiction rather than facts to fancifully present the term “school turnaround” as if it was a magic bullet.

This particular chapter begins with the Can Can Team from ConnCAN who recently performed a dog and pony show for Connecticut state legislators where they crowed about the “success” of various “school turnaround” projects.

Using their traditional corporate education reform rhetoric, rather than facts, the charter school front group performed magic that would have made a “three card Monte” aficionado proud. [Three card Monte being a card trick in which the mark can’t win because trick cards are used.]

The well-documented corporate education reform failures of New Orleans and Philadelphia were incredibly heralded as successes and that was before they got out their shovels and really started throwing IT around.

Here is Wendy Lecker’s latest MUST READ commentary piece, which first appeared in the Stamford Advocate.   

Failure as a model for Connecticut (By Wendy Lecker)

A recent large-scale federal study revealed that most states lack expertise to turn around struggling schools and are rarely successful. It’s no wonder. Legislators who write turnaround laws never turn to the experts: educators. Connecticut is no exception. Last month, the General Assembly’s Education Committee held a day-long session on school turnarounds. Instead of relying on education experts, it turned to ConnCan, the charter lobby known for its evidence-free reports that push one agenda: Taking power away from school districts to pave the way for privatization.

ConnCan brought in three examples of turnaround to push the idea that the key to success is handing schools or entire districts over to outside operators.

The most startling choice for a presentation was Hartford’s Milner school. Recall that Milner was one of the first commissioner’s network schools. Milner suffered through a failed turnaround in 2008 under then-Superintendent Steven Adamowski. It also had a persistent and severe lack of resources. Rather than providing Milner the necessary resources, the State Board of Education decided to turn it around again in 2012, handing it over to Michael Sharpe’s FUSE/Jumoke charter chain. FUSE/Jumoke had no experience educating ELL students, which made up a large part of Milner’s population. After the revelations of Sharpe’s criminal record and falsified academic credentials, it came to light that FUSE/Jumoke ran Milner school into the ground, hiring ex-convicts, relatives and “winging” the takeover, as Sharpe admitted — all while supposedly under heightened scrutiny by state officials.

Milner’s principal under this takeover, Karen Lott, told Milner’s story. She admitted that this fall, only 13 percent of Milner’s students scored proficient in ELA and an even more shocking 7 percent were proficient in math. She said although they are in the fourth year of the Commissioner’s Network, she is treating this as the first year. Amazing! No public school would be allowed to fail for three years, then magically erase its poor track record.

She blamed the school’s poor performance on several things. First, there was high staff turnover at the school: 85 percent of teachers now have 0-3 years’ experience teaching. This is mind-boggling, as staff turnover was not only the result of the state takeover but one of its goals. Lott spoke of the need now to “aggressively recruit” veteran teachers. Like the ones Jumoke-Milner pushed out in the first place? She also stated that now she is relying on teacher training and mentoring from Hartford Public Schools.

Lott further explained that under Jumoke there was no curriculum. She is now using the Hartford Public Schools curriculum and assessments.

Lott also emphasized that community supports are necessary for children to achieve. She said families need stable housing and mental health services, parents need job training and the neighborhood needs to be safe and clean. Imagine that — poverty affects learning. If this were a public school educator saying these things, ConnCan would condemn her for using poverty as an excuse.

Lott detailed the steps she was now taking beyond the Hartford curriculum, assessments, training and mentoring. She acknowledged that a centerpiece of her efforts is a large increase in resources. Milner now has a full-time therapeutic clinician and after-school programs. Hartford Public Schools re-opened its budget to provide the school will more computers. Central office also allowed Milner to have two half-days a month, so teachers get additional professional development. Lott also said she now implements Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a system used by many public schools.

To her credit, Lott seems to be focusing on proven methods of helping students: extra academic and social support for at-risk children, training, mentoring and support for teachers, and adequate school resources. What must be stressed is that none of these ideas are innovative. Nor do any of these resources require takeover by an outside operator. They are tools schools either already use or have been pleading for. The lack of these resources is a basis for Connecticut’s school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell.

Lott contended that what she needed is more time, more resources and more autonomy. Schools need time and resources to improve. The claim for autonomy, however, is puzzling, given she is relying on central office for curriculum, assessments, training, mentoring and special treatment so she can get resources other schools do not have.

Lott’s message is — perhaps unintentionally — the opposite of the one ConnCan is pushing. Schools do not need takeover or turnaround. Just give struggling schools time, support and resources to do what everyone already knows helps kids learn.

You can read and comment on Wendy’s original piece at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Failure-as-a-model-for-Connecticut-6267220.php

  • Charlie Puffers

    It really is amazing how the politicians can find hundreds of millions of “accountability” dollars to enrich their donors who then use the money to over-test students, provide scam evaluations of teachers and close abandoned schools. But, very few are actually fighting for reduced class size, better resources, and wrap around services in the name of equity.

  • ReTired

    As always, Lecker rings the bell and calls us to attention to the obvious. Educators should be more involved in the process. To that end, educators need to demand, shout, and push their collective knowledge to those decision makers who become the mouth pieces of bureaucrats-and better yet, to the politicos themselves. These efforts take time; however, given the latest rampage over Smarter Balance and Common Core, and the efforts of many, including this blog, administrators from the state to the local levels acquiesced to parent pressure and opted their children out of the insanity forced on children every spring. Power to the people who simply dare to say enough is enough-now listen to ME!