How to Triple the Number of Fixed Failing Schools? Try, Try Again

A lot of us in the reform-minded edufield are excited about the Obama-Duncan plan to fix the 5000 lowest performing schools. But if you are like us, you might find yourself see-sawing between that anticipatory excitement and the emerging reality that improving learning dramatically for very disadvantaged kids is difficult at scale in any school context, no matter how hard we try. It can seem there are no simple fixes, and that’s true.

But here’s a mind bender: In fact, we can double to quadruple the number of failing schools fixed within five years without getting any better at fixing failing schools. How? Merely by shortening the number of years that pass before districts, states and CMOs recognize failed school-fix attempts and retry major change. This goes for both modes of radical school fixes, starting fresh with charters (etc.) and turnarounds-from-within.  See more here: Try, Try Again

It’s education lore that major change efforts take five years to work.  In other sectors, people don’t get five years to pull businesses (or governments, for that matter) out of bankruptcy or show start-up results to funders. Why? Because most turnarounds and start-ups fail, and savvy investors know it. Indeed, only about 20 – 30% of start-ups and major change efforts outside of education succeed. But  investors still earn high overall returns on risky investments by engaging in “rapid retry.”  When an effort is not on track, they do not wait. They reinvest rapidly in another venture or introduce a new leader with a strong change mandate.  

What could this mean for fix efforts in failing schools? It’s all in the math. For example: If a school district fixes 30% of its failed schools the first time out (high rate by cross-sector standards), shortening the “identify failure and retry” rate from five to two years would nearly double the total % of schools fixed within five years from 30% to 58%.  Shortening it to one year would drive the five year fix rate up to 83%.  If the initial success rate is more dismal, say 10%, shortening the retry cycle from five years to one year quadruples the number of schools fixed within five years.

 Here’s how state, district, and CMO leaders can make “rapid retry” a reality: 

  • Commit to faster retry rates in failing school fixes, one or two years not five.
  • Identify the “leading indicators” of success/failure that show up in years one and two of fix efforts.  We can get much better at spotting signs of trouble early, rather than waiting for years of inadequate performance before realizing that something needs to change.
  • Create a “spigot” of leaders and school operators ready to step in when needed, since so many attempts will fail the first time.  Many of the adults in failed efforts will (and should) get a second chance, but the kids will not. So we must not waiver or wait, and we must have a ready supply of talent to retry in the efforts that fail at first.

Without rapid retry rates, success is unlikely in the effort to fix the 5,000 worst schools. Fortunately, Try, Try Again is not just a good idea, it’s also an emerging federal requirement.  The recently released draft guidance on federal school improvement funds (also known as 1003(g) funds) requires states to set annual goals on a three-year trajectory for rapid improvement of failing schools and to measure “leading indicators” along the way to predict which efforts are on track. The Department’s request for comments specifically seeks advice to define “accountability” using these indicators, a signal that the next round will fill out this aspect of the requirements.  With this strong federal leadership, we find our see-saw tipping and sticking on the “excited anticipation” side!

–Guestbloggers Bryan and Emily Hassel of Public Impact

17 Replies to “How to Triple the Number of Fixed Failing Schools? Try, Try Again”

  1. First, I immediately picked up on you claiming the mantle of reformer. I know your school of thought needs a name, but I wish you would try to come up with something that doesn’t assume that the folks who disagree with you are all for the status quo.

    And I’m going to bring up the old criticism about the education/business analogies. What is the cost to kids and communities when their schools are reconstituted and still don’t work? My sense is that each time this is attempted, we don’t return to the status quo. We make things worse. You may argue that a failing school is already failing, you can’t get any worse. I don’t agree. My hunch is that we can actually inflict damage to kids and communities when we take a school, close it down, break it up, reopen it and don’t put something better in its place. Which, as you said, happens 70% of the time.

    In contrast, the impact of a failed business is felt most acutely by those who tried to start the business themselves.

  2. Can anyone identify high schools that have been fixed? Manuel High School in Colorado and Orr High School in Chicago are known failures, but where are the successes? What did they do differently?

  3. I ask this because most of the high school successes I see are selective admissions high schools like Noble Street and Chicago Academy High School in Chicago. Are there any “fixed” schools which have attendance area admissions policies rather than selective admissions policies?

  4. I agree with sam, when most schools are closed and brought back up, they don’t do any better than before. During my time in high-school, we had a referendum to bring in more money for things such as music and arts classes. Because the school could not afford to keep up some of the classes, many less mainstream ones were cut, such as German, and many of the AP classes (European History, Human Geography, etc.) After the voters rejected the referendum, every student was required to take a study hall (in addition to gym-required by Illinois), so that students were in far too few educational classes, and too many blow-off ones. They finally reinstated the whole school day, but many programs were still gone and it’s sad to see a higher ranking school go down and suffer because of poor planning by administrators and the school board.

  5. As a longtime serial entrepreneur and investor – one who has started many businesses (including venture-backed companies) and succeeded in almost as many as I’ve failed in – I completely agree with sam’s criticism of the education / business analogy.

    First of all, no venture capitalist worth his salt (and hey, truth is 99% of them are men) will invest in a start-up whose founders have not already invested their own capital SIGNIFICANTLY in the company first. In fact, it is common for seed investors to REQUIRE founders to invest their own additional capital as a condition of getting that first round of seed investment.

    I know of NO edu-“reformers” who are willing or able to put their own personal money where their mouth is when it comes to the “rapid retry” game. It’s mostly just talk. It’s not as if Arne Duncan is ponying up his own hard-earned cash. He’s just playing fast and loose with other people’s money.

    Secondly, investors do not “blow up” start-ups or failed turnarounds. They look for what are euphemistically called “alternative exit strategies” – i.e., ways to sell off what’s left of the business so they can minimize their losses. These can involve finding a bigger company to acquire the company or its assets (esp. intellectual property).

    Comparing the stakes involved in business start-ups and those involved in schools or failing districts is cynical and intellectually dishonest.

    Our children are NOT widgets.

    Serious reformers need to stop using this dishonest analogy.

  6. I like a whole lot of what Public Impact does, so I’m guessing you’ve already considered a lot of the potential criticisms. I’m curious if you can provide us some more justification behind your assumptions that undergird this model. In particular:

    -What leads us to believe that the success rate in Year 1 would be the same as the success rate in Year 2? This is a core assumption and it strikes me that re-setting a school is different than closing and opening a new business. In the latter case, everything starts fresh; in the former, the majority of the staff remains, as does the community, and, at least to start, the prevailing school culture. Thus, if there were factors that caused school X to fail during the first turn-around, wouldn’t it be statistically less likely to success during the second turn-around? I’m also wondering if consecutive failed turn-around attempts (especially within a short period of time) wouldn’t lead to a compounding “sensitization” or resistance to turn-around attempts.

    -Can you provide the research supporting the claim that turn-around doesn’t actually take many years? It’s my understanding that in many cases school (and district) improvement does in fact occur on an exponential curve over the course of several years (e.g. Norfolk, VA Public Schools). The danger, of course, is mistaking schools that are persistently failing with schools that are on the right track but still on the flat portion of the curve. There seems to be danger on the other side, though, of pulling the plug too early.

    Thanks for providing additional clarification – it’s an interesting idea, and you all do fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking work!

  7. cheesenstein, not sure what you mean by brining up personal investment. Aren’t people who give up more lucrative careers to teach investing something? Aren’t talented teachers and leaders who choose to work in a failing school, when they could take an easy job in a suburb investing something?

  8. Most of us will agree that schools need reform, however, my experience tells me that we need creative, new ideas and not just the same old “catch-phrases” and programs that have a new name. It is time to gain a new perspective and advance forward with innovation and new ideas.

  9. A great example of a traditional “turn-around” school is Bruce Randolph 6-12 in Denver. Once rated the worst middle school in the state, the school is now outpacing the district average in terms of student growth (according to the DPS School Performance Framework). After two years of reform, it moved out of the “unsatisfactory” and “declining” rating the state assigns to “low.” Of course, it still has a long way to go, but now in its fourth year of reform it has demonstrated that significant results are possible in less than five years. The school is still a traditional public school, accepting all students that live in its neighborhood boundary.

  10. dissenter – We’re in agreement: people who give up more lucrative career opportunities to teach are definitely investing in these communities. However, they are not “investing” in the same way venture capitalists “invest” in start-up businesses. T

    My objection is to the false equation of business investment with modes of education reform.

    The stakes are much higher in education, which is why I believe it makes sense to plan, manage, and execute turnarounds with a less capricious mindset than the one that prevails in business.

    BTW, I quit my lucrative career to teach in city schools, so I’m not a total outsider to this discussion on either side.

  11. I also agree that there needs to be some reform in failing schools, however where does the accountability lie when these efforts fail; the school district, teachers, administrators, superintendent, etc…? Education has become big business. You have all these so called experts that come in and with huge price tags, with their perscriptive programs and upon implementation it is detemined that this may not work for a certain demographic, after all, children are the common denominators in this equation. Again I ask, where does the accountability lie? How do we ensure this not a perpetual cylce? So whether it takes 1 year or 5 years to quantify the data and make a determination, who is held responsible?

  12. I think Troy Christensen said it best; you cannot fix a failing school while employing all the ideas and programs that failed in the first place. We need new approaches to education, tailored to the demographic of the individual school. The problem with trying new and innovative ideas is that there is too much regulation and government involvement in our public schools. Our communities, schools and children are not cookie-cut and we really need to understand that one approach does not fit all. I believe the more freedom a school has to adjust its curriculum based on student needs, the better the school will perform.

  13. There seem to be several problems with the try-again-rapidly approach, some of which have already been mentioned.

    Two others of note:

    First, if a failing school is likely to fail again and get the plug pulled after one or two years, what incentive would there for an effective principal to go to such a school? My research in Texas shows that principal stability makes a difference, but that too many schools pull the plug on the principal and school too early. In fact, as another poster mentioned, the reform curve is often flat in the initial years. This is exactly what I found–in schools with a newly hired principal, that there was no difference in gains in school performance the first few years, but the schools that retained their principal really showed much better growth after 2-3 years than schools that had principal turnover.

    Second, there seems to be an assumption that standardized test scores provide good evidence of a school turning around. Yet, as Dan Koretz points out, rapid improvement on standardized tests often is more indicative of test score inflation than real gains in learning. So, saying 20-30% of turnaround schools are successful may be an overestimate uif based solely on standardized test scores.

  14. I understand that this conversation is based on the ability to fix failing schools, however, what exactly is the plan for this turnaround? What qualifications do these new players have that will make such a huge difference? I strongly agree that there are schools in need of reform, but wouldn’t all schools benefit from knowing what is working and what is not? A principal, solely, will not make the difference. Staff collaboration and dedicattion is what will begin a turnaround. Yes, it needs to start with excellent leadership, but one person cannot take all of the credit for fixing a failing school. In fact, educators are expected to work hand-in-hand with parents, community members, other staff, and students. Where is the credit for these people who also factor into the changes? My point is that there are many role players, and I am curious to know what each is expected to do to change such difficult circumstances within a school.

  15. Anyone can complain about a poor or broken school. All the Monday morning quarterbacking will not change one thing. You can change what happens in that school though. Volunteer, develop funding programs for these programs the system is having to trim of cut all together. Get involved with the school administration and find out how you can help. Set up tutoring programs with transportation for students after school to get help from adults in the community. I am one of the first teachers to arrive at my school each day, and usually one of the last to leave.
    It takes teamwork from the parents in the community, the faculty and administration, and the parents of that school to get it moving in a positive direction. When one is missing, problems for students are sure to follow.

  16. Since we are talking about how to turn around an educational community, how about business change the way they work with their employees.
    Many parents in my community are working two jobs to make ends meet. At what point does business act in behalf of their employees to allow them to have a lunch break long enough for them to be with their students when they do their homework? How about setting up computers with webcams on their job site and have them link with their kids at home to help them with their homework. How many of these same businesses will allow their employee to leave and tuck their kids into bed when they go to bed in the evening? Such a business would be of value to an educational community, as they are valuing the employee and their kids, and are willing to change their business model with employees, just as the school is expected to change.

  17. Has the question been asked, why are these schools failing? Is it lack of funding, inexperienced leadership, poor curriculum planning? Can there also be instances of lack of proper family involvement in the school and student’s lives? All of the above?

    Fixing failing schools is not something that can happen overnight. Even with experienced leadership and staff there is a learning curve to figure out what works best for that particular school. It does take a lot of hard work on the part of all involved: the school staff, families, children, and the community. I believe that with a school doing all that it can, it still will not be successful if the families of the children are not involved with their children’s education. Ideally, these families should demand success and accountability from the school and their children. Therefore, no matter how fast you try to turnaround the failing school, ultimately, it will still fail.

    Businesses getting more involved with the community and fostering a growth in education is a great idea, but one that I do not see coming in the near future. Perhaps if we shifted back to an era where there was loyalty in the employer/employee relationship, some of the great ideas Chris speaks about could be put into action.

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