School turnaround failure

Yesterday’s front-page Boston Globe story on English High School is a cautionary tale of what takes place under the broad banner of “school turnaround,” and of how ill-conceived reform efforts probably set back attempts to build support for school change models that actually stand some chance of moving the student-achievement needle.

Boston’s English High has a storied history, but its glory days lie far in the past. In recent years, it has been one of the city’s most troubled high schools, plagued by abysmal student achievement levels and high drop-out rates. To tackle the challenge of turning the school around, the school department tapped a 33-year-old principal with exactly one year under his belt running a school, and handed him the sweeping powers over staffing and curriculum that came with English High being one of Boston’s 11 state-designated underperforming schools.  

As the story illustrates, Sito Narcisse proceeded to upend almost everything at English High — except for its lousy achievement scores and graduation rate. He got rid of three-quarters of the school’s teachers and administrators — they were either broomed out or quit.  He instituted — and then abandoned — a school uniform policy.  He pushed single-gender classrooms into school, though he did so with no training for teachers on the challenges that would bring.

Now, after three years, with only slight improvements in MCAS scores, a graduation rate that has fallen further, and a devastating report from a state review team that said students were regularly seen texting, talking, and napping in classes during a January visit, Narcisse is leaving.  He is taking an administrative job in the Montgomery County, Maryland, school system.

“We were the NBT school — the Next Big Thing school,” one staff member told the Globe. “Whatever the buzz was, that’s where you found us — same-sex classes, uniforms, ninth grade academy, curriculum initiatives. But there was no input from anyone — no research, no training, no evaluating, and therefore no effective implementation.  It was change without progress.”

The most striking thing about the Globe account was the absence of any mention of a clear instructional approach designed to boost student achievement.  As Pioneer Institute’s Jim Stergios writes on his education blog, things like school uniforms or single-gender classrooms might be perfectly reasonable components of a school turnaround strategy, but they need to be part of some bigger plan that tackles the core mission of teaching and learning.  

Brockton High School stands as one of the best examples of what can be achieved when there is clarity, purpose, and a pedagogical foundation for an effort to drive improved academic outcomes. And Brockton drove huge gains in student achievement without any added authority to get rid of teachers or any of the other strategies English used, which only look like gimmicky fads when implemented so poorly.

Boston school Superintendent Carol Johnson has named an assistant superintendent as the new headmaster at English High, and says the new principal will report directly to her, not to a deputy superintendent. But absent a clear plan for academic gains, changing the line of reporting authority seems like just another empty reform move that misses the point.

                                                                                                                                                    –MICHAEL JONAS


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