Skeptics vs. Pollyannas

The comments readers have submitted on our Try, Try Again post echo something we hear a lot: that efforts to fix failing schools can’t work. On one hand, skepticism is justified. Most chronically struggling schools haven’t improved much despite lots of pressure, grant funding, and outside help. Pollyannaism when it comes to chronically low-performing schools is clearly out of line. On the other hand, success stories do exist. Our colleagues documented five in this brief from the Center on Innovation and Improvement earlier this year; Mastery Charter Schools is making a name for itself by achieving strong results with fresh starts in Philadelphia; the Academy of Urban School Leadership has some promising results operating turnaround schools in Chicago, and just received nearly $3 million in federal funding for the teacher residency program that powers its classrooms. The Dept. of Ed. is making other grants like this one to turn up more examples of dramatic improvement in failing schools and learn what’s working.

So it turns out that neither utter skeptics nor Pollyannas are on the mark here. Just like in other sectors, efforts to fix chronic failures won’t usually work, but they will work sometimes. If we don’t try at all to fix failing schools, our success rate will be 0%. If we try once in each school and then let the efforts drag on for years regardless of results, we’ll see 20-30% success rates (if we’re lucky). If we want to reach the 60-80% range, there’s only one way, and that’s spotting failure early and rapidly retrying.

—Guestbloggers Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

8 Replies to “Skeptics vs. Pollyannas”

  1. Identifying failure early is a very logical idea. But I wonder if potential success and failure can be identified even earlier. I’ve often had a sense during the first week that I’ve worked with school whether or not the work will be successful.

    What tips me off to failure so early tend to be things like the following:

    1. A principal who is disengaged, who can’t state any tangible goals for the school, and will not require his teachers to use the training they receive.

    2. Questions from teachers during and after training that make no sense based on the material presented. (We pass out note cards and have teachers write their questions down. Then we survey the list of questions to assess their learning. It’s surprisingly accurate and teachers have no sense that they’re being assessed. We then find the small number of good questions we can answer for people and develop training that is more focused on the needs of individual schools.)

    3. Large numbers of classroom visits where there is an obvious lack of classroom management.

    4. An obvious dependence on the part of teachers on worksheets and textbooks.

    5. A prevailing attitude on the part of teachers that there is nothing they can do and that that problems are rooted in the community or with the kids themselves.

    6. Anger and resentment toward our consulting team when we go into classrooms and achieve a degree of success.

    7. Teachers who can’t articulate “why” they do “what” the do with any reference to assessment information.

    And so on.

    What I wonder is if you’ve had the same experience and if a set of criteria could be developed to assess the prospects of a successful turnaround even earlier than one or two years. I have an informal rule for taking new clients where I ask the principal a few basic questions. Things like:

    1. Are you willing to require your teachers to use the training they receive?
    2. Are you willing to monitor teachers’ use of the training?
    3. Are you willing to contact me with any difficulties you experience and to make sure your teachers do the same?

    Surprisingly, most principals waffle on these simple and logical requests. So, in some instances, I can predict failure or success before I even begin working with a school.

    Steve Peha
    President, Teaching That Makes Sense

  2. Not to be a Pollyanna, but we’ve identified a number of successful turnaround schools and posted their stories on our website: (Not all of the stories profiled are about turnarounds, but quite a few fit the common definitions.) Many of these schools that turned themselves around are traditional public schools.

    Steve’s comment reminds me of Jay Mathew’s recent piece on Shaw Middle School in DC–though they explore the flip side of his reasoning. Shaw has a great principal, and the school seems to be doing all the right things, but scores actually declined since the turnaround efforts began. Mathews and Michelle Rhee are optimistic about next year, but there has to BE a next year for us to determine whether this optimism is warranted. So, would the axe have to fall before year three according to the “Try, Try Again” model?

  3. I am always surprised to read that some principals are still solely focused on just “getting through the day”. How is that in our current age of technology, teachers and principals fall short? With the amounts of hours that go into training, wouldn’t you want to apply those valuable techniques to your classroom and surrounding school community?

  4. As Claus mentions, I did define indicators in the negative as early predictors of school turnaround failure. And they could all be turned around themselves into positive early predictors of success. (Public Impact also identifies “14 Leader Turnaround Actions” in a policy piece on their website.)

    Reading what Dawn wrote got me thinking if there wasn’t one single factor that was more important than any other.

    In my experience, the ability of the school principal to ask people to do things they don’t want to do is the #1 skill I have seen in schools that show success. The lack of this ability dooms almost any attempt at change to early failure.

    As I talk to principals behind their closed office doors, I almost always discover that they are terrified of making requests of their teachers. As one principal put it: “I’ve spent my career asking kids to do things. But I’m just not comfortable asking adults.”

    Many school leaders struggle through the day with a kind of emotional paralysis. Most would truly like their schools to improve. Most know that changes in instruction are the key. But many lack deep knowledge in instructional techniques and current research so they feel awkward and unprepared to ask their teachers to change. Finally, they prize harmony over progress, and that makes them shy away from the inevitable confrontations — however small — that are likely to occur.

    One goal of ed reform must be to help school leaders develop the emotional competencies they need to lead effectively. Knowledge is great. But knowledge is something anyone can gain on the job. Feeling uncomfortable about asking staff members to make changes is not something one can glean from a book or research study.

    There are many strategies we can use to help school leaders conquer the fear of requesting changes. The best one I’ve used might be called “goals and values clarification.” Helping principals get progressively clearer about what they want often helps them muster the courage to ask for it. If nothing else, over time they come to realize that they can’t move forward without talking frankly to staff members about what needs to be done.

    When we think of making big changes in our education system, we often forget about principals. There are only 100,000 of them. That’s a much smaller group to move forward than the four million teachers we have. Principals could be the lynch pin of reform. Focusing on just a few traits of successful leadership could yield big results on a large scale.

  5. Couldn’t agree more about the need for quality leadership. One friend who’s job has caused him to inspire lots of kids to go into special education and who’s seen many of them leave sums up their experience as, “Love my kinds; like my families; hate my leadership.” One young teacher’s principal told her, “If you want encouragement, you came to the wrong school.” !!

    How many systems have intensive efforts in place to identify and develop young leadership talent? Are smart, committed young teachers with lots of social skills more or less likely to stay in teaching long enough to become leaders?

    On the other hand, leadership is easier and more effective in a group that’s working together to find ways to move forward toward a desired future. That’s one part of “Positive Education.”

  6. Hassel and Hassel have named a few schools that have been improved by an intervention experience of some kind. However, before advocating huge increases in intervention rate, it would be a good idea to know about the ratio of successes to failures, and about the costs. I suspect that much of the success of interventions comes from increased spending and increased discipline, rather than staff replacement or curriculum replacement. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong; nobody knows! I would like to see more analysis of the type Hassel and Hassel are doing BEFORE big increases in interventions. Is that too much to ask?

  7. I agree that teachers should do all they can and contribute to the learning community. However, no one group should be forced to shoulder the load of raising and educating children. I firmly believe in the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

  8. As for fixing failing schools, you have to go with what works. Every community is different and I’m not sure that what works for one will work for others. I think “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” applies here.

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