The collateral damage of a district 'turnaround'


“Wendy Lecker: The collateral damage of a district 'turnaround'” Lawrence superintendent provides misleading information about the long-term effects of his school system’s “turnarounds” in an attempt to paint the state takeover model as a success, failing to acknowledge the receivership’s overall lasting collateral damage to the district.Blog-Tia-ChildrenDeserveBetter

With their narrow focus on test scores, disruption and structural changes, such as firing staff, education reformers constantly push the notion of school and district "turnarounds." However, turnarounds been widely proven as ineffective in improving the longer-term educational quality of targeted schools.

The evidence shows that turnarounds result in, at best, temporary boosts in test scores that often fade after a few years. These policies also often do lasting damage to the school culture by getting rid of teachers and staff who know the students.

A turnaround "model" presented by ConnCAN, Lawrence, Massachusetts, had all the characteristics of turnarounds that are more hype the help.

Lawrence is in the throes of a state receivership. Prior to state takeover, the Lawrence school system was beset with corruption, culminating in the indictment of district's former superintendent and several of his staff, for embezzlement.

In an apparent attempt to paint the state takeover model as a resounding success, the school's deputy superintendent, Seth Racine, provided an incomplete picture of the Lawrence receivership. When asked by a legislator whether the schools were given additional funding after the receivership, Racine said, categorically, that there were no additional funds except for federal school improvement grants ("SIG") received by four schools.

This assertion is false. State records reveal that Lawrence spent millions of dollars more after the receivership.

In the years prior to state takeover, Lawrence illegally shorted its mandated local contribution to the district by millions of dollars. After the takeover, school spending from just state and local sources jumped almost 8 percent, or $12 million.

Racine's description of the enrichment activities also fall short of reality. According to sources inside the district with knowledge of district practices, schools drastically reduced art, music and gym, and eliminated recess. The haphazard after-school activities were nothing but a shoddy replacement for classes eliminated from the curriculum.

The vacation academies are also not the miracle Mr. Racine claimed they were. Sources revealed that just prior to the state ELA tests and again just prior to the state math and science tests, teachers were instructed to choose those students who would give the district the biggest bump in test scores. Those students were then given one-week intensive test prep on those subjects. The district also promised easy credit recovery (and gift cards) to current high school students and those who failed to graduate the previous year, if they participated.

The overall results from Lawrence hardly paint a picture of success. In the majority of subjects and grades reported, there was either no improvement in proficiency rates or an actual decline.

Racine also downplayed the issue of staff turnover, although sources maintain that it was significant. Upon the arrival of the receiver, a Teach for America alumnus, experienced teachers of color, especially Latino teachers in this heavily Latino district, were pushed out. Many of these quality teachers were quickly scooped up by neighboring districts.

In Lawrence, they were replaced by mostly white, inexperienced recent college graduate Teach for America corps members.

Although presented as a success, the Lawrence case study actually has all the worst characteristics of a turnaround: short term minimal improvements in limited areas, accompanied by lasting collateral damage to the district.