From Pennsylvania to Arizona, reformsters are hitting the streets (well, the legislatures) to push the value of turning schools around. More specifically, they're pushing for a New Orleans style handover of schools to charter operators. The seeds of slow-motion disaster (financial starvation and bogus failure rates for bogus standardized tests) are finally yielding fruit that is ready to harvest.
Hear the touching chorus. "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled low-scoring students yearning to hand their funding to charter operators who may let them breathe free, but that's the last free thing anybody is going to get because we have some Return On Investment numbers to make this quarter." Or something like that. One can hardly expect hedge funders to be great poets, too.
There is one strategic problem with selling the idea of turning failing schools around-- pretty much nobody has ever actually done it. Charteristas have had a decade or so to show off how they can transform failing schools into gardens of glorious success, and so far the best they can come up with is a two-step process:
1) Make sure you get all the loser students out of your building.
2) Write really well-spun press releases and get news outlets to run the uncritically.
Mostly, turnaround specialists end up looking like Karen Lott in this great piece of reportage from Wendy Lecker in Connecticut. Lott went before Connecticut's General Assembly Education Committee to tell her own story as a turnaround principal. As Lecker reports, Lott had several key items that she felt were necessary to pursue the turnaround success that she hasn't actually achieved yet-- more veteran teachers, less staff turnover, use of the state curriculum, support programs to address impact of poverty, more time, more resources, and more autonomy. That thunderclap you just heard is the sound of all the public school teachers in the country slapping their foreheads and saying, "Wow! More resources and freedom! Poverty matters! I had no idea!"
In short, Lott doesn't know a single thing that the public system doesn't already know. This is par for the course. I have a standing offer for anyone who can tell me about a single technique, program or approach developed in charter schools that has gone on to be widely successful in public schools. The "successful" charter model is generally the same-- do pretty much what the public schools do, but do it with a different (better) group of students.
So when a turnaround expert turns up in your neighborhood and starts asking for control of public schools, here are the two questions to ask:
1) What specific successful techniques and programs do you propose to use in turning around the school?
2) Is there any reason those techniques could not be used in the current public school?
Without clear, compelling, and evidence-supported answers to those questions, there is simply no reason to close a public school just to open a money-making (and that includes money-making "non-profits") charter operation.
It is the great charter secret-- charter operators don't know a damn thing that public schools don't know. They have had years to try every trick that they thought would transform schools into factories of excellence; of all these tricks, only careful management of which students are in the building has been consistently successful. I believe there are some charter successes out there, and I believe there could be more-- but not on a large scale. The most successful charter ideas would be location specific, and not scaleable. But that's not what charteristas are selling. What they are selling is snake oil and smoke, and they need to be called on it repeatedly.