Turnaround Schools

Lessons from Turnaround Schools: 2011-2012

From the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education: Strong leadership, a team approach, meaningful coaching for teacher instructional improvement as well student-centered data collection and analysis make a difference

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a report in April 2012 on its view of what has made for success of lack thereof in the state’s Turnaround School process. One of the big takeaways: strong, competent leadership as well as mutual respect are more important than the wholesale excessing of 50% or more of staff. From the report we quote:

 “‘while there are no discernible trends (at least after one year) with respect to the turnaround model used by schools (e.g., turnaround, transformation, restart), specific educational programs, or even with respect to additional funding, the analysis did identify three significant commonalities among Level 4 schools with rapid achievement gains.’” The following three strategies were implemented effectively and with a degree of sophistication that was ‘substantively different than those schools with little or no immediate achievement gains’:

  1. The school has an instruction- and results-oriented principal who has galvanized both individual and collective responsibility for the improved achievement of all students through a variety of deliberate improvement structures, expectations, practices, and continuous feedback.
  2. The school has created instruction-specific teaming and teacher-specific coaching for pursuing ongoing instructional improvement
  3. The school has developed a well-orchestrated system of ongoing data collection and analysis that informs a continuously responsive and adaptive system of tiered instruction directly attentive to students’ specific academic needs.”

Please see the report here.

The Globe, too, had a report on the same topic on April 30:

“A motivated principal able to galvanize teachers and foster a respectful school climate is a major factor in helping underperforming Massachusetts schools boost standardized test scores, but there is no hard evidence that replacing half the teaching staff makes a significant difference, according to an independent report commissioned by the state. “The lack of concrete evidence on mass dismissals is rekindling debate about the strategy, which has stirred emotions in Boston, Springfield, and elsewhere…”

Read the whole article.

Teacher Performance Evaluations Reveal Major Inconsistencies in the Review Process

A review of teacher ratings from 11 Turnaround Schools reveals that ratings are… well… consistently inconsistent.

Each Turarnound School administrator has had the right to hire, recruit, and retain their staff for the last two school years. Each administrator has also had virtually unfettered discretion over the evaluation rating system in that time. Presumably, each of the administrators has been given the same instruction, guidance, and mentoring. Despite this, their ratings of staff vary widely.

In looking at the 11 Turnaround Schools, the data reveals that:

  • staff who earned “exemplary” ratings ranged from 48% of a school’s staff to 0%,
  • staff who earned “proficient” ranged from 100% to 44%,
  • staff who earned “needs Improvement” ranged from 21% to 0%; and
  • staff w ho earned “unsatisfactory” ranged from 5% to 0%.

For all Turnaround Schools, 77% of the teachers were rated as “proficient,” and 12% received exemplary. 9% received ratings of “needs improvement,” and 1% received an “unsatisfactory” rating. 10% of the staff received no rating at all. (All numbers are rounded off.) See the chart of all school ratings here (PDF).

Why Do Only Three Schools With 34% of the Staff Have 83% of the Exemplary Teachers?

In six of the 11 Turnaround Schools “€” the Greenwood, the Harbor, the Holland, the Dearborn, the Dever, and the Burke “€” it was virtually impossible to receive an exemplary rating. Only three were given out in total at the six sites. At three other sites “€” the Kennedy, Orchard Gardens and English High “€” with only 34% of the total Turnaround staff, they nonetheless garnered 83% of the exemplary ratings.

So what does all of this mean?  Safeguards Are Needed

The answer is just maybe that the ratings procedure is not “€”and maybe cannot be “€” an exact science.

There may be some very unusual explanation for the disparity in ratings. Or on the other hand, we might take this as caution. If the raters cannot get this consistently right with all the support that Turnaround School administrators have now and all the training that’s been made available to them, then how can we expect them (and others) to  get it right when the added resources dry up? That’s why we have taken a reasoned approach in negotiations on this topic. Teachers undergoing the performance evaluation process, whether at Turnaround Schools or not, are entitled to a few basic considerations:

  • Quick and timely feedback
  • Sufficient time to improve
  • Notice of their rating during the course of the school year

That’s why we have taken our position in negotiations: We want good teaching and excellent teachers. And we need consistency.


Read some background and history of Turnaround Schools in Massachusetts

History of Turnaround Schools

In January 2010, the Massachusetts legislature rushed to enact an Education Reform law with the(RTTP) program incentives. $250 million was at stake, and Boston was a winner in Round II of the competiiton. Boston’s ultimate share looks to be in the vicinity of $9 million per year over the next four years in competitive RTTT funds. In addition, various grants will add tens of millions more to the school department’s budget as targeted short-term funds.

In general conformance with the goals of the Race to the Top, the new state law doubled the number of charter schools in the state”€™s lowest-performing districts. The law also created a hierarchy of underperformance. It required the district to evict at least 50% of the staff of those schools placed at the bottom “€” Level 4. Boston had 12 schools in the initial group. It also granted designated school districts other new powers and tools including great flexibility in reorganizing staff, setting work conditions and determining the length of the school day “€” all of which overrode existing provisions of existing collective bargaining agreement.

Change for the sake of change is not a recipe for success. Evicting more than one-half of the staff from a school may now be allowed under state law, but that doesn’t make it sound educational policy. The Race to the Top policies offer a quick-fix plan that looks bold and produces good PR for legislators and school districts. But the efficacy of pursuing education reform through forcing a dramatic turnover in staff is not supported by education theory or data-based evidence. All this is totally unproven. Our teachers, paraprofessionals and students are the guinea pigs in this so called school reform effort.

The Efficacy of the Drastic Shake-Up Model of School Reform

With great power comes great responsibility. The school district has a tremendous responsibility to craft a plan to improve our schools and close the achievement gap. The Boston Teachers Union wants our schools to improve and we see our members as the chief vehicle for that improvement. We would have welcomed the opportunity to become full partners in the turnaround of ‘underperforming’ schools, starting with helping to develop a better process for deciding which schools were most in need of intensive change. That was not to be. Once again, “€œreform”€ was done “€œto us”€ not “€œwith us.”€

On March 4, 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced the names of twelve Boston Public schools that were designated as Level 4 underperforming schools and Mayor Menino and (BPS) Superintendent Carol R. Johnson announced intervention plans for these schools. The schools were the: Louis Agassiz Elementary School. William Blackstone Elementary School. Jeremiah E. Burke High School. Henry Dearborn Middle School, Paul Dever Elementary School, English High School, Elihu Greenwood Elementary School, Harbor Middle School, John Holland Elementary School, John F. Kennedy Elementary, Orchard Gardens K-8 School and William Trotter Elementary School.

An additional four schools, the Emerson Elementary School, the Guild Elementary School, the Tobin K-8 School, and Odyssey High School were identified earlier as Turnaround schools in Supt. Johnson”€™s five-year strategic plan, the Acceleration Agenda. While they are not “Level 4” schools, they were put on notice that they, too, might be subject to drastic turnaround tools.

The school department choose seven of these twelve schools to be subject to the 50% eviction rule including Jeremiah E. Burke High School, William Trotter Elementary, John F. Kennedy Elementary, William Blackstone Elementary, Paul Dever Elementary, Orchard Gardens K-8 Middle School and the Harbor Middle School. The superintendent reserved the right to make staffing changes in all 12 schools in the future.

The school department did not have to choose ANY of our schools for this status. We believe that this decision serves only to scapegoat selected staff, who are, by and large, innocent victims. A majority of these schools have been mismanaged and underfunded for years.

A prime example of how blame has unfairly being laid on the steps of union teachers is Orchard Gardens K-8. This school was designated a Level 4 school based on its extremely low test scores. It has had six principals since it opened seven years ago. Clearly there was a failure of leadership here over an extended period of time. Yet it was 50% of the teachers and paraprofessionals who were forced out of the school.

Some education commentators tried to assert that teachers who were evicted had received poor evaluations. This is blatantly untrue. Some of these individuals have never been evaluated. Some had been evaluated and received excellent annual reviews. The closest many of these individuals had come to being evaluated in the last few years was a 10-15 minute drive-by evaluation that took place in the last month before they were excessed from the school. You don”€™t need to take the word of the BTU or its members. You can read the report of the National Council for Teacher Quality “€” no friend of the teachers union “€” to hear how shoddy and haphazard BPS evaluation procedures have been.

Altogether there were 409 BTU members in the 7 schools. 291 of our members submitted letters requesting to remain; 118 did not. Of the 291 who applied to stay, 166 were accepted and 125 were not. Bottom line: 409 eligible to stay. 166 will remain. 243 will not . The 243 individuals have assignment rights to other buildings.

How much innovation? How much cost-cutting and union-busting?

There were two meetings between the BTU and BPS to review a list of changes and conditions to apply to the 12 Turnaround schools. Key features of the BPS plan for what should have been innovative education reform were:

  • 180 hours of added time in the classroom without compensation
  • 30 hours of additional PD without compensation
  • An increase in SEI or Bilingual class-size of up to 9 students per class to match that in regular education classes
  • A loss of either one or two P&Ds per week, depending on grade level
  • Elimination of SEIMS time for staff at all levels
  • No salary step advancement prospectively for anyone on steps who gets a mark of unsatisfactory on either an interim(*) or final evaluation. (*) the latest in the school year
  • A bonus ( $600 per person) for improved MCAS scores
  • No seniority and/or attachment rights for anyone in an underperforming school.

What is the most striking about this list is that there is very little that resembles education innovation and a lot that looks like cost cutting and attempts to limit teachers’ voices in these schools. We asked how increasing the school day and year up to 230 hours without compensation will “rapidly accelerate student achievement,” while the same time extension with compensation will not? We asked how increasing class size for SEI or Bilingual classes help increase student performance?

We responded to the BPS”€™ proposals for extended hours by saying that we would agree to work the extra time provided that appropriate additional compensation was attached to their proposal. The BTU is in agreement on the need and the benefit of an extended school day. Many schools in Boston already go an extra hour or two, and staff at each of those schools get paid for their additional hours to varying degrees depending on whether they are in a traditional school, a pilot school, or an extended learning schools. The only “€œinnovation”€ here is that, thanks to the new state law,  now the city doesn”€™t have to compensate teachers appropriately for the additional work! This is exploitation, not innovation.

The BTU’s plan included the following proposals:

  • creating a team of people to work on developing social/emotional/academic support for children at each Turnaround School. The team would be comprised of a social worker, an academic coach chosen by staff, a CFC parent liaison to do outreach, a part-time school attendance officer, and a part-time behavioral specialist. The team would provide needed (and often missing) services to our schools.
  • development of a reading intervention program
  • provision of either physical education or a movement class to all children three times per week.

Because the BPS and BTU could not come to an agreement, under the process mandated by the state the issues went to a 3 person or joint resolution committee. All items would be voted up or down by a majority vote. The panel was made up of BTU Vice-Presdient Patrick Connolly, School Departmnent appointee and Asst. Superintendent Joseph Shea, and arbitraror Mary Ellen Shea.

No serious consideration was given to our proposals by the panel. Even though we had had one person on the panel, the decisions were by majority rule, and in all of the key proposals we lost, the decision was 2-1 against. We got a few concessions here and there, but, in the end, the main substance of the Superintendent”€™s proposal were approved on June 20, 2010.

The agreement approved by the panel provides that:

  • All professional staff in underperforming schools must work an additional 190 hours (100 PD, 90 teaching) for a total compensation of $4,100, or less than $21.60 per hour. The contractual hourly rate is approximately double.
  • All Turnaround teachers to complete the four levels of SEI training (approximately 80 hours) without any compensation. (If you add these 80 hours to the previous total of 190, the panel’s decision requires that hundreds of our professional employees will work as many as 270 additional hours for $15.19 per hour, about 1/3 of the contractual hourly rate.) How many professional people do you know who work for $15/hour?
  • The agreement also allows the Superintendent to implement a new pay-for-excellence plan that recognizes exceptional whole school teams of teachers through “€œteam rewards.”€

Good Faith Bargaining?

On August 10, the school department received a $22.5 million grant from the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for 10 of the twelve Level 4 schools. The grant will be doled out over the next three years, and is to be used to pay for the 190+ hours of forced teacher overtime as called for by the superintendent, and other sundry items. This funding is three to five times greater than what the school department had told the state it needed to pay the teachers for the additional, required work.

It is hard to believe that the BPS member of the joint panel was unaware that this funding was in the works. Yet throughout the process, the BPS contended that they were totally without resources to fund extended hours at a higher pay level. As a result, the school department is making big money and taking clear advantage of the Education Reform law to exploit our members.

The Emerging Vision for Turnaround schools

To counteract the clearly massive disruptive effects of evicting half of the teachers in a school, the BPS has developed the “€œT3″€ initiative. They have turned to the TeachPlus program (a program funded by the Gates Foundation) in three of the 12 Turnaround schools: the Blackstone, Orchard Gardens and the Trotter.

According to the BPS, “€œAs a T3 teacher, you will have the opportunity to work with a team of effective teachers who are high performing and dedicated to working collaboratively. You will be trained as a cohort in turnaround strategies that have been used by other highly effective teacher teams. You”€™ll be part of a broader turnaround strategy that supports effective teaching. You”€™ll be able to take on leadership roles without leaving the classroom. The T3 Initiative offers a path toward mastery in urban teaching.”€

The union will be closely watching the situation in the “Turnaround” schools. We can only hope that all the disruption, unhappiness and sacrifices that BTU members were forced to endure as part of this process will, at least, produce meaningful, long-term change and improvement in the quality of teaching and learning in these schools. Of course, the additional RTTT funding will make a big difference. But whether the city and the state has the commitment to sustain this level of funding when the short-term RTTT federal money remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, in other schools throughout the district, we will work to foster educational turnarounds in our schools without such draconian and unfair methods. And without the additional transfusion of extra funding. Many of our district schools had virtually the same level of need for assistance as those chosen as “Turnaround” schools. The designation of the twelve selected schools was somewhat arbitrary: the MA DESE needed to have a cut-off point somewhere. So backing up a commitment to improving all underperforming schools with adequate funding will remain a challenge for the Governor, our state legislators and the city.