Best of Dropout Nation: The Inmates Remain in Charge: The Culture Change Problem of School Turnarounds
School turnarounds are easy to talk about — and arduous to do. Save for examples such as the effort of Joel Klein and others under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and that of Tom Payzant in Boston under that city’s mayor, Thomas Mennino, and even Richard Daley’s efforts in Chicago, few districts have ever been overhauled. Part of the problem lies with the fact that accountability efforts have focused almost exclusively on schools; only 15 of the 33 states and the District of Columbia granted waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, are directly holding districts accountable. The bigger problem lies with the consequences of the bureaucracy inherent in the traditional district model.
Back during my days as a reporter for Forbes, my boss at the time, the legendary Seth Lubove, offered an insight on the shifting leadership changes in the organization by stating that the wardens will always change, but the inmates will always be in charge. His adage proved true over the years as he and other editors left for comfier confines (along with a series of restructurings). Yet the essential nature of the magazine — set in the days of the great James W. Michaels and his deputy, Sheldon Zalaznick — remains the same.
The extraordinary Lubove’s adage for corporate change (and even my own turnaround work) came to mind while reading the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s tome on the poor results of school turnarounds (and the equally woeful unwillingness of education players to shut down failure factories). When it comes to any turnaround effort in any sector, the problem largely has less to do with finances or infrastructure or even roadmaps. Those matters are relatively easy to handle. Turnaround experts can even usually deal with forces and interests outside of their control; save for situations involving a sponsor such as the U.S. Department of State who pays the tab and controls the conditions under which an organization operates, the turnaround experts can win over those outfits with a little care and feeding.
The real problem ultimately comes down to the culture — the group of people and interests tied together by common traditions, work styles, group-think and behaviors. And it is the problems of culture that explains why just one percent of the dropout factories and failure mills surveyed by Fordham are ever successfully turned around — and why the better solution is to just start new schools outside of sclerotic institutions.
Culture, especially that which is toxic, will overcome any one individual’s effort to go against the grain and can even overcome the efforts of a rival culture to put it asunder; this is especially true in situations in which the methods by which one can easily remove the elements of culture cannot be used easily (if at all). It’s harder still if the turnaround artists involved don’t have the full support of the folks who brought them in; if a board or chief executive is unwilling to fully embrace the tough decisions that have to be made (including standing up to internal constituencies who like things as they are) then the turnaround artist is merely engaging in pantomime.
This is the typical situation in traditional public education. Individual school turnarounds are hard to do because principals usually don’t control budgets (which usually means teachers) or personnel decisions (also teachers) — those are governed by the central office, by state laws influenced by lobbying by affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, and collective bargaining agreements that protect veteran teachers regardless of their performance. The veteran teachers have been in the school for years, have seen principals come and go, and know that they don’t have to change their ways if they don’t want to do so. Even if a principal follows the abysmal performance review processes to the tee — from observations to corrective remediation — a teacher knows that the cost of removal is often far greater (both in money and time) than either a principal or central staff wants to pour into it.
This problem isn’t limited to poor-performing teachers. High-quality teachers with a mindset of autonomy in a school may not be willing to embrace change because the moves may interfere with how they want to run their classrooms. The fact that they work among laggards also allows them to hide in plain sight; once the poor performers are weeded out, the definition of high quality is raised; this can change their status and that may be a bridge they don’t want to cross.
For districts, the challenges of state laws and teacher contracts are great. But so is the culture change problem. Some of the central office administrators were once the laggard teachers and principals that perpetuated the district’s failure factory status. It is asking foxes to rebuild henhouses and guard the chickens too. The influence of AFT and NEA locals on the election of school board members also means constant (and often, losing) battles with governance; it’s why school superintendents generally last less than three years on the job. Even for the veterans who want to advance any overhaul, there is the issue of subjecting your colleagues to the fire; the longstanding relationships can cloud personnel and operational decisions; the case of Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White (whose hamfisted reform initiatives have combined with his unwillingness to remove laggard administrators from his ranks) attests to this reality.
For the turnaround artists in education, the solutions are, well, difficult: You either have to accept that you will be working at the school or district for a short time and go for drastic change quickly; after all, the long knives will eventually come. Or you have to work the long-term, which means compromises that will weaken reform efforts; success will be yielded, but you will always have wanted to go further and realize more could be done. Either way, the culture problem isn’t fully addressed.
This is a problem that $3.6 billion from the School Improvement Grant program cannot solve. And it’s a problem that isn’t limited to schools and districts. Based on the work conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality and by former Teachers College President Arthur Levine, the same culture problem will plague efforts to turn around low-quality university schools of education; in some ways, it will be worse because the governance structure of universities, the tradition of academic freedom and the nature of (increasingly rare) tenure gives faculty plenty of leeway to do as they please. As seen in the failed tenure of former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, faculty displeasure leads to the ouster of administrators.
One solution for the culture change problem lies with the use of objective data in evaluating school, teacher and principal success. If all the players in education know they will be held accountable based on student performance, they may grumble, but they will get in the game. This goes to the long-term work of improving school data systems and implementing the use of value-added assessment and perhaps, (despite my skepticism and historic evidence that it doesn’t work) even peer review. Based on the low levels of success in school turnarounds, it is probably better to just shut down the schools and districts and start over. As I’ve said this week on the Dropout Nation Podcast, we must treat American public education like an Etch-A-Sketch and shake it up from its foundations.