Since founding Matchbook Learning nearly five years ago as a vehicle for spurring change and improvement in failing schools, I have sometimes had the feeling of being alone and facing overwhelming odds. The number of failing schools – chronically failing – has been on the rise and we had very little in the way of “supply” of charter management organizations (“CMO’s”) focused on turnarounds despite the rising “demand” for the same. We’ve had little in the way of road maps or role models.
Recently, that changed – at a conference in Philadelphia. Together with Kathy Hamel from the Charter School Growth Fund, Ben Rayer and Paige McLean from Achievement First and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, we organized the first-ever conference of its kind, a gathering that included CMOs that have done at least one school turnaround (the “supply” side) as well as funders and State and Local Achievement/Recovery District Leaders interested in school turnarounds (the “demand” side). Over 135 leaders from 20+ States and even one guest from the UK arrived last week for it.
We wrestled for two days on several topics and themes via fishbowl conversations, fireside chats, mini-consultancies, and small breakout sessions on key topics.
Several themes emerged from the two-day gathering including:
This work is much harder and more complex than “fresh start” charters. It also much more rewarding and soul-lifting. This comment was made over and over again by CMO’s that have done both fresh start and turnarounds. School turnarounds require both courage and humility.
The work also requires considerable structure given the complexity of handling students with a very wide spectrum of special education needs, social and emotional challenges and migrant enrollment and attendance patterns throughout the school year. Turnaround Principals must exhibit a considerable degree of emotional and managerial maturity to manage this type of environment.
Community engagement needs to be done through an authentic, door-to-door, grassroots, ground game that is agenda-less and allows time for trust and relationships to form with the community. This slow relationship-building process often flies in the face of the short planning cycles and rapid takeovers so often associated with turnaround work, but it is crucially important.
Accountability needs to look different for turnarounds, particularly in their first year. Growth measures will have greater relevance than proficiency measures in the short term because of how far behind these students are from grade level when the turnaround begins.
There’s a clear tension between the massive demand and moral imperative associated with turnarounds and the relatively low supply of quality operators willing to take on this work and stay in the game long enough to prove results. Turnarounds require at least a five-year process.
I must say, I’ve been to what seems like hundreds of conferences but never have I felt so completely aligned in my mission and kindred in spirit, as I was at this gathering with others who share the same mission and spirit. We will not have a public education system for all kids until we truly serve ALL kids. The truest test of our democracy for the next generation lies in our ability to advance their human potential and reverse the effects of poverty on achievement.
Time will tell whether this conference forged a national consensus and whether the momentum we felt is real and will be sustained. But as my “fireside” interview with Tennessee’s Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic indicated, funders and authorizers are on the precipice of a “2.0” version of education reform. If 1.0 was charter schools, then 2.0 will be charter schools doing turnarounds – getting inside the worst performing schools and their districts to transform them from the inside out.
Virtually every one of the 20 states and their government officials represented at the conference worries that as they intervene and take over these struggling schools, there won’t be a sufficient number of turnaround operators to answer the call. As things stand today, that’s a legitimate concern. The number of failing schools five years ago was estimated at approximately 5,000. Now, some experts believe it is as high as 20,000. Consider that of the 35 CMO’s in the room, the largest turnaround CMO, Mastery Charter schools, manages only 12 turnaround charters. And this is the largest turnaround CMO. The next largest CMO is Green Dot which manages about half a dozen school turnarounds. Both of these CMO’s have been at this since 2000.
Our top two turnaround CMOs, with the deepest experience, best track records, highly talented leaders and significant philanthropic support – after 15 years of working on it – manage fewer than 20 turnaround schools between them.
Both these organizations deserve tremendous credit. Trailblazers by definition have the toughest roads to travel. And their work has given hope to several school districts that are now forming “Turnaround Districts” (Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin, etc.) to take over 70+ schools each in the next five years.
We clearly need both more turnaround operators to enter this space and for existing turnaround operators to think about scale in different ways. Matchbook Learning is taking this challenge seriously – considering dramatically different models that will allow our methodology to be scalable and adaptable in communities around the country. We expect to be talking more very soon about our conclusions and the actual products and services that we’ll be able to provide to help build this field and contribute to this movement.
One thing is clear, however. The gathering we just saw in Philadelphia should make us all hopeful for the future. Certainly, we are closer to answering the call and catalyzing this movement then we were just a short time ago.