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Why "turnaround" won't help kids

UPDATE: On April 2, Chancellor Walcott announced a reprieve for seven of the 33 schools that were slated for closure and "turnaround." These schools will remain open: In Manhattan, Harlem Renaissance; in Brooklyn:  Brooklyn School for Global Studies, William E. Grady Career and Technical High School, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, IS 136 Charles Dewey, Maxwell Career and Technical High School, and Cobble Hill School of American Studies. For more details, see GothamSchools.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch no doubt ruffled some highly placed feathers when she said that the mayor's attempt to remove half the teachers at Grady High School had "nothing to do with the kids."

Grady is one of 33 schools that Mayor Mike Bloomberg is trying to shut down under the federally dubbed "Turnaround model," which means, essentially, that the schools will close in June, replace half their teachers and their principals (if they've been there for more than a few years), and "re-open" in September. Like several other federally-inspired models the city could have chosen, Turnaround schools are eligible for federal funding--up to $2 million a year for three years.

Here are five reasons the city's latest attempt to close schools seems to be more about politics than school improvement:

1. It's expensive.

The several thousand teachers who will be removed from their schools will continue to collect their salaries. They won't be fired. Rather, they will be placed in the substitute pool, also called the Absent Teacher Reserve or ATR pool. The "new" schools are free to hire half their teachers from outside the Education Department. Even if only 500 new teachers are hired, that's at least an extra $32 million in salaries and benefits. 

2. The city's plans are constantly changing.

Take the case of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. In 2010 it was designated a "transformation school" (another federal improvement model). In 2011 the school was labeled a "restart school," only to find itself tossed into the "turnaround" bucket this year. That's three models in less than three years. And last week the DOE snatched out the principal in the middle of the year. In fact, the city is now trying to "turnaround" 13 schools that it was "transforming" last year. If it's making your head spin to read this, imagine trying to teach in this situation. How does a staff develop, implement and assess an improvement plan when the floor is constantly shifting under them?

3. There's no rationale to explain why the "new" schools will be better.

There are examples where a really dysfunctional school has been closed and a better one has replaced it. In those cases, a whole new team comes in with fresh leadership, energy and a coherent vision for what the new school will be. They start small, with just a few grades, plan for months, and build a new culture and learning environment from the ground up. In the case of these 33 schools, a principal may or may not be switched out, there is no new leadership team, no real time for planning or professional development and, in some cases, not even so much as a new paint job.

4. There's no evidence that half the teachers at these schools are bad.

Sure, not all the teachers at these schools are great. And to be honest, some of the 33 schools have been struggling for years and probably need immediate and aggressive intervention. But many, such as Sheepshead Bay and FDR, have been socked with a huge influx of needy kids. They have a committed staff who mostly need more support. Places like Lehman High School have arguably been wrecked in part by bad leadership decisions made by the people at Tweed. Now the answer is to fire half the teaching staff?

5. What's really going on: a squabble between the mayor and the union.

The real deal is that the mayor is angry that the teachers union won't agree on an evaluation plan that judges teachers based on year-to-year gains on standardized tests. And the union historically has also made it difficult to get rid of subpar teachers. So the mayor is threatening to replace thousands of teachers, which will likely include some very talented and committed ones. These 33 schools are struggling and they need a targeted and carefully crafted plan to improve, not a scorched earth approach. Otherwise, it's the kids who will pay the price.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 April 2012 13:09

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