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Thompson: Turnarounds Need Trust

ITrustt's sad that Secretary Duncan misstates the facts regarding schools that turn themselves around while keeping the same kids in the same building. 

It would be tragic if he did not adjust the ESEA Blueprint based on the facts of Organizing Schools for Improvement, the study from Chicago that lays out the importance of trust and effective professional development in fixing schools.

Had the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCRS) just published its data on elementary reform efforts in 1992, they could have mistakenly concluded that improved schools faced the same socio-economic challenges as schools that stagnated, as well as perpetuate the misconception that leadership, teacher quality, and "expectations" or instructional "push" were the keys to improvement.

A two decade-long intensive focus on the schools that stagnated, however, showed that they had higher rates of poverty and racial isolation (often above 90% for both metrics), served neighborhoods with higher crime rates (that undercut relational trust), and greater concentrations of children who live with nonparental guardians or come from foster care. In other words, serving "the truly disadvantaged" is a far greater challenge.

"The most powerful single finding was the association of student attendance with safety and order," and that finding had ramifications for all aspects of school turnarounds. "Also of note, a high rate of community crime was an especially strong indicator of attendance stagnation."

Children from those neighborhoods with the weakest social capital were the ones who most needed engaging instruction, a personal "press" by teachers to strive, and time on instructional tasks. But, "staff knows well from their experiences that work environment can quickly spin out of control ... A natural response, then, is to tightly control instruction: keep students quiet and working individually in their seats under firm teacher direction." This can lead to "didactic teaching methods with constant repetition of basic skills worksheets, practice drills, and teacher-directed instruction [which] tended to stagnate." The lack of student engagement further undermines attendance, safety, and order.

This brilliant study explores the nuance of several interacting factors, such as "Not a single school weak in both curriculum alignment and safety and order improved its attendance. Similarly, not a single school improved when weak on applications-oriented instruction and order ...." and "... not a single school with reports about poor-quality professional development and serious safety and order problems improved student attendance." (Emphasis in original)

The study concludes with the metaphor of baking a cake, arguing that all ingredients are necessary and that "silver bullet" shortcuts are not possible. The CCSR describes "a complex interaction where a press toward higher academic standards must be coupled with ample personal support so that disadvantaged students have a realistic chance of responding successfully to these expectations."

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