Turning Over Turnaround

Through its School Improvement Grants, the Obama administration has funneled $3.5 billion to turn around schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. More than 15,000 schools, or 16 percent of schools nationwide, were eligible for the grants. According to Department of Education data, SIG-awarded schools tend to be high-poverty (75 percent), high-minority (86 percent) schools concentrated at the high school level in urban areas.

SIG funding permits four different intervention models: transformation (the most flexible, but requiring replacement of the principal), turnaround (requiring replacement of the principal and at least 50 percent of staff), closure, and restart (closing and reopening a school as a charter school or under an educational management organization).

To consider turnarounds, we spoke with Joseph Murphy, Frank W. Mayborn Chair of Education and associate dean of Peabody College. He is a past school administrator, including at the district and state levels, and the founding chair of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium. He is widely known for directing the development of the ISLLC Standards for School Leaders and for the revision of those standards in 2008. He is also one of the authors of the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education (VAL-ED).

Murphy is the author or co-author of Lessons for School Leaders (2011), Homelessness Comes to School (2011), The Educator’s Handbook for Understanding and Closing Achievement Gaps (2010), and Turning Around Failing Schools: Leadership Lessons from the Organizational Sciences (with Coby V. Meyers, 2008).

IA: In your book with Coby Meyers, you discuss turnarounds in non-education sectors, including business, and draw contrasts and comparisons with schools. How different are they?
JM: The term turnaround has a more concrete meaning in the private sector. Turnaround companies have bogged down or are within six months or a year of going under. So it’s very tangible what the problem is. When it comes to the social sciences and social services, it’s tougher to define. In education, it took on a whole new definition which basically meant helping schools that someone viewed as failing. Failing and turnaround became synonymous. Then the definition of failing got tied into NCLB, and a failing school is now defined as a school that doesn’t meet NCLB criteria.

We studied all the other turnaround industries that had been involved — corporations, churches, political parties — to see what we could learn that we could apply to education.

IA: Secretary of Education Duncan has said that this year 82 percent of schools could be failing under NCLB.
JM: It tells you on the surface that the concept is bankrupt. You can’t have an industry where half of the companies in the industry are failing. So a definition like that is not very helpful. You need crisper, clearer definitions that sort out the bottom organizations that are failing and that don’t label everyone that isn’t doing great as failing.

IA: What led you to look outside of education for comparisons?
JM: We were to the point where people were talking about turnarounds and there was no empirical evidence. We studied all the other turnaround industries that had been involved—corporations, churches, political parties—to see what we could learn that we could apply to education. And we found a significant body of work. We can’t swear that it’s all applicable, but if everyone else is doing it and they seem to be getting success, it does seem foolish not to consider it.

IA: So how do other sectors handle turnarounds?
JM: One thing you see consistently is that they change leaders. It’s almost universal that failing organizations change leadership at the top. The theory is, if you are the leader and the boat hit the big rock and is sinking, you’re responsible. There is no way around it. Even if somehow magically you weren’t responsible, the perception is that you are. So you have to go. Public schools are beginning to do that.

Interestingly, in no other industry that we studied do people start by terminating their employees. In education, we have reconstitution, where all employees are fired and then have to reapply for their jobs. No other turnaround industry in the history of the world has followed that pattern. It’s completely isomorphic to the education industry.

The other thing that’s different is that all the other industries centralize control. A turnaround situation is a crisis, and no one talks about five years down the horizon. You will be bankrupt. So it’s much more aggressive.  In education it’s like three years, four years…if it’s really a crisis, we have an amazing timeline.

Joseph Murphy

The other thing they do is that all the first moves revolve around budgets and money. That doesn’t happen in education. Why is it that every turnaround in other areas begins with efficiency moves?

If you’re saying these places are going over a cliff, this isn’t a time to get committees together. This isn’t a time to decentralize and get people involved. This is a time for someone to say, “I just put the brake on. We’re turning the car and we’re going in a different direction.”

IA: Are there comparisons with non-business sectors?
JM: The New York Police Department is a great example—a guy named William Bratton. It was right in the period where people didn’t even want to go to New York because they thought they were going to get mugged in the street. He looked at it and the first day there, he said, “We’ll have a 25 percent reduction in crime in two years.” He didn’t have a committee. He said. “This is where we’re going. This is the benchmark. The boat’s leaving, right now.” And I think that’s what turnaround situations require. They need someone to get up and put the stake in the ground about where the new vision is or what’s going to happen. They need to do it fast, and they need to do it from the top.

IA: How would this work in education?
JM: I think your first move is to get a new principal. I think your second move is to get control of the budget and figure out what gets cut quickly, and those resources get pulled back to what you want to accomplish. I think the third thing is you unilaterally and very quickly put a stake in the ground about what the future will be. And in one sentence: “This is where we are, and this is where we will be in two years.”  Then you have a platform for action.

… this is not an apology for schools that aren’t helping kids. But to solve the problem you need a large-scale societal attack. Not just an educational attack.

—Joseph Murphy

IA: Don’t principals face a lot of budget constraints?
JM: You don’t want to use a budget that is determined centrally as an excuse. So you look at the budget you do have and you figure out where your degrees of freedom are. It’s a lot easier to turn around if you are in a supportive environment where the superintendent and the district are saying, “Yes, we will support you to make these kinds of moves. You don’t have to hire a librarian next year. You can use that money for creating an afterschool tutoring program. Or you can eliminate night custodians and put the money into a Saturday program for at-risk kids.” If the district can support those kinds of moves it certainly makes life a lot easier.

IA: What about the argument that there are factors beyond even district control?
JM: The issue that people need to be sensitive to is that these failing districts are places of high poverty and high minority status. This is a not a condition in the rest of turnaround world. If there’s a company that’s failing in the chemical industry, it’s not related to these kinds of issues. When you look at turnaround districts in the U.S.—real turnarounds—they are overwhelmingly poor places and very heavily minority places. That requires an acknowledgment up front and an additional set of intervention strategies that go beyond normal turnaround.

IA: What is it that needs acknowledging?
JM: That an awful lot of the cause of the failure is outside of the school. And I don’t say that as an apologist. Schools are culpable. But the point is a lot of the failure is explained by variables outside of schooling. It seems to me a lot of the solution has to extend beyond what schools historically have done. If poverty is a critical issue, we need a broader social attack on these schools. Health policy, welfare policy, social policy and transportation policy are all critical dimensions of helping kids in schools that need to be turned around. I don’t get a sense that the education powers that be have been as forthright as they should be about this reality.

Almost all turnarounds fail. Why would we assume that we’re in an industry where 100 percent of turnaround situations are going to work? I don’t find any logic to it.

You’ve got to attack poverty. If it’s anchored in issues of race, than you have to address issues of race, not just a new reading program or a new math program. Again, this is not an apology for schools that aren’t helping kids. But to solve the problem you need a large-scale societal attack. Not just an educational attack. You need six or seven battalions to take the hill. To send just the education battalion is not wise. It’s a big hill, a tough hill, and to ask one battalion to win that battle—even if it’s a big battalion—it’s still not a wise social policy.

IA: Where do you see current turnaround efforts leading?
JM: My sense is it’s going to collapse. You can’t have a situation where the majority is failing and no one is going to hit the targets. That’s not sustainable. I don’t have any empirical knowledge that reconstitution works. We don’t have any evidence that turning schools over to private management companies or making them charter schools works. I like charter schools, but there’s no widespread empirical evidence that they’re going to solve the problem. And I don’t think we have evidence on the school improvement strategy. So I don’t think any of the current turnaround strategies has a deep empirical base.

One turnaround strategy that does seem to have promise, if it could be done, is actually closing the school. The problem is when we close schools in education, it closes on a Friday and it reopens on a Monday under a different name or different structure. If you actually close the school down and those kids had to go somewhere else, and you could target where those kids go, that does seem to me to be a promising strategy. And it’s much more consistent with the non-educational turnaround literature.

The question is, you have to be pretty strategic about where you put the kids. Just to send them to another school of mediocrity is not going to do the trick. If you’re in a city like Detroit where the entire system is failing, where are you going to send them? You don’t have a lot of alternatives.

IA: That doesn’t sound promising.
JM: Here’s the question that educators don’t acknowledge. In the rest of the world, once you’re in a turnaround situation, somewhere between 75 and 90 percent go out of business. The notion that all turnaround schools are going to be saved is completely unsupportable. Almost all turnarounds fail. Why would we assume that we’re in an industry where 100 percent of turnaround situations are going to work? I don’t find any logic to it.

IA: So are bad schools here to stay?
JM: I think that argues again for the liquidation strategy, if you can find reasonable places to put these kids. I wonder if we’re in just another chapter in a well-intentioned shell game. We have had comprehensive school reform, we have had effective schools, we have had restructured schools, and we’ve got turnaround schools. None of these have made a significant dent in improving troubled urban schools.

I believe people care about kids. I believe they work hard. This isn’t the problem—that people don’t care, they don’t invest resources, they don’t try. So why they don’t turn around really seems to be the big issue. And if you get to that question, I think you do very quickly come back to issues of poverty, race, and community.