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THOMPSON: A "Two-by-Four" or a "Scalpel"

37turnaround_515 Perhaps we need to take both a two-by-four and a scalpel to research on school turnarounds, and its inability to determine which are the preferred strategies. Robert Balfanz (my favorite turnaround expert) is correct that "we have more knowledge than we actually apply."  But I have more knowledge about diet than I actually apply.

Two great Education Week articles by Catherine Gewertz and Debra Viadero explain the complexity of Secretary Duncan’s challenge of turning around the nation’s failing schools. "You need to have an accurate diagnosis of why each of those 5,000 schools are failing," explained one specialist, "Sometimes you need a two-by-four to get change. Other times you need a scalpel." And William Guenther, the director of Mass Insight (my other favorite source of turnaround wisdom), explains "states will have lots of money they have to spend quickly. Providers could just hang out their shingles ... and call themselves turnaround partners."

Chicagostudent "Expert opinion is nearly unanimous ... on the importance of achieving an early quick victory." Sometimes the early "win" could just be a repainting of the building, but more often (at least in older grades) educators need a success with the most intractable problems presented by the most challenging students. Common sense and common humanity would argue for a "win win" victory as with Balfanz’ pilot program in Philadelphia where young people from City News act as mentors and thus helped reduce by 40% the number of students with behavioral problems. But common sense and human experience says that the Chicago turnaround strategy will be adopted more frequently. Chicago turnaround high schools often used higher academic and behavioral standards to push out troubled students.  We need to see the student featured in the Chicago Tribune article who is no longer is afraid to attend school, but "creaming" is not the answer.  Harper High School transferred more than 50 students with disciplinary problems to other schools.  Their logic - and I'm not making this up -  was that a change in scenery could do them good. Of course, this argues for another Mass Insight recommendation - that we need "clusters" of turnaround schools where schools are giving each other support and not dumping their problems on each other. - John Thompson 

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