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