This piece originally appeared in Education Week’s Living in Dialogue blog
After over a decade of “corporate reform” strategies in many places, we have a chance to compare the results of two drastically different approaches to improving public schools. In some places, such as Washington, D.C., we have seen teacher turnover skyrocket, in line with the belief that lagging student performance is due to inferior teachers. In Montgomery County, Md., the teachers’ union and district have been following a different path for the last 15 years, and are seeing dramatic results.
“Corporate reform” is the moniker earned by the dominant paradigm in school turnarounds, the one promoted by the U.S. Department of Education and championed by foundations established by successful corporate titans Bill Gates and Eli Broad. According to this approach, if students aren’t performing, start by getting rid of the adults who must be, by definition, responsible. This blame, fire, and hire strategy is imported from the corporate world where Jack Welsh and Donald Trump are the archetypal heroes. The problem is that after over 13 years of this approach there’s little success to point to on a national scale. Cleaning house, what we used to call “reconstitution,” has, at best, a mixed track record.
It seems that corporate reformers and reformers who actually work in schools instinctively disagree on the best first step to improve a low performing school. Now there’s an excellent new study by Matthew Ronfeldt, Susanna Loeb, and Jim Wyckoff, “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement,” which correlates high teacher turnover with lower student achievement. It’s sad that we need a study by economists to give us permission to assert what to educators is self-evident. But it’s time to look more closely at examples of where each approach is working, or isn’t. Two districts next door to each other provide a contrast in approaches with lessons about what works, and what doesn’t.
In Montgomery County, the teachers union and the district have spent 15 years building a collaborative approach to improving the quality of teaching and learning. In 2000, we decided to intervene, collaboratively, at Broad Acres Elementary, the school system’s lowest performing, highest-poverty elementary school. The first decade of the intervention has been written up as a case study. The case study makes clear that all has not been smooth sailing. There were many missteps. But the key was working with the existing teaching staff and the collaboration between district and union. The first thing we did was to meet with the teachers to let them know that we wanted all of them to stay if they chose to. The union’s vice president was assigned to meet with every teacher, individually, to get their ideas. The catch was that any teacher who chose to stay would have to remain at the school for at least three years. If we were going to invest in training and support we wanted the teachers we invested in to stick around. We knew that one of the problems at high poverty schools was teacher turnover and the last thing such a school needed was to get rid of the adults. About one third of the teachers were allowed to transfer out, but two thirds signed on to what they knew would be a hard but intensely rewarding effort.
At Broad Acres, 90 percent of the students are on free-and-reduced lunch, almost all are students of color, and the mobility and non-English speaking rates are high. We didn’t blame the teachers. We knew that poverty and low test scores are highly correlated and that breaking that connection would take an unusual effort. The existing teaching staff re-focused the curriculum, met for long hours in grade level teams and vertical articulation teams, visited homes, and took responsibility for meeting the needs of their students. Principal Jody Leleck believed that the teachers should lead the reform. The partnership with the union was natural.
The intervention at Broad Acres was an undisputed success and has continued now for 12 years. For the first time, in 2003, Broad Acres made AYP. In fact, they were the most improved school in the county for several years in a row. More broadly than this one school, Montgomery County is one of the few districts in the nation that has actually closed the student achievement gap significantly by race and class across the entire district.
We have done it not by focusing on standardized tests, but by putting resources in the neediest schools and by valuing high quality teaching. We refused to make student test scores a factor in teacher evaluations, refusing to sign on to the state’s Race to the Top application. We respectfully disagree with the strategies those efforts represent.
By contrast, just across the district line from Montgomery County in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee, who had never run a school, never mind a district, was handed control of the D.C. Public Schools by the Mayor in 2008. She set about to fire and hire her way to reform and her comment “collaboration is overrated” became a slogan. Her energies went into empowering principals to get rid of teachers. She herself famously invited a PBS camera crew to record a private meeting in which she intended to fire a principal. A local blog has tracked the Rhee/Henderson record.
Anyone who has followed reform efforts in D.C. knows that student achievement over the past five years, as measured by test scores, has been unimpressive under strategies begun by Rhee and continued by her successor, Kaya Henderson. There have been slight ups and downs in test scores, but little that’s statistically significant. The achievement gap based on race and poverty has actually widened significantly. Additionally, a system-wide cheating scandal in 2009 under Rhee, that has yet to be investigated, has thrown a pall on all the data.
In D.C., however, what has been stunning and undisputed is the change in the teacher turnover rate. For a district that used to have a relatively low turnover rate compared with the national average, now 50 percent of teachers don’t make it beyond two years, 80 percent don’t make it beyond six years. For principals, approximately 25 percent lose their jobs every year. It’s not unusual for schools to have a new principal every year. So in the name of “reform,” we now have churn. It can be said that teaching is no longer a career in D.C. What has been accomplished as a result of the conscious policies of the current and immediate past chancellor is the creation of a teaching force of short timers. Gordon MacInnes summarized Rhee’s mistakes for The Century Foundation here.
A recent Washington Post article about the rift between Democratic mayors and teachers’ unions pointed to Montgomery County’s teachers union as the exception, nationwide. The Post was half right. The union’s shoulder to the wheel, collaboration with the district to make schools better has been exemplary. But this is not exceptional. There are lots of examples of attempts at that kind of collaboration all across the country. What makes Montgomery County an exception is that the politicians and school administration have not blindly adopted the corporate reform ideology. They haven’t adopted mayoral control. They don’t worship at the altar of student test scores. They recognize that reform led by educators will be more likely to succeed. The union is made a partner. Teacher longevity and commitment to the school and its community is valued. And respecting the complexity of the craft of teaching is considered a better approach than trying to improve education by making war on educators.