Turning Around the Bottom Five Percent

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The secretary introduced his speech with an overviewof his Listening and Learning Tour and a summary ofthe American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Heoccasionally deviated from this prepared text.

Today, I want to focus on the challenge of turningaround our chronically low-achieving schools. Theseschools have failed to make progress year after year.

In some of these schools, the leadership has beenreplaced, but it hasn't made a difference. Many goodteachers have left them and too few good teachershave replaced them. And many dedicated parents andambitious students have also left and found otheroptions.

The social and physical conditions around some of theseschools are horrific.

They're often unsafe, underfunded, poorly run,crumbling, and challenged in so many ways that thesituation can feel hopeless.

That is, until you meet the kids, talk to them, and listento their dreams of the future. I went to Detroit wheretwo out of three students drop out. However, the seniorsI met are all going to college. They know what theywant to be and they don't want to waste a minute.

I went to a high school on an Indian reservationin Montana where 80 percent of the adults areunemployed. They could name just one student fromtheir school who had completed college in the pastsix years.

I talked to the ninth-graders and they begged to bechallenged. They think everyone's given up on them.No one expects them to succeed. Yet, despite bleakconditions, they still believe in the redeeming powerof education.

There are approximately 5,000 schools in thischronically underperforming category, roughly 5percent of the total. About half are in big cities, maybea third are in rural areas, and the rest are in suburbsand medium–sized towns. This is a national problem—urban, rural, and suburban.

I won't play the blame game, but I also won't makeexcuses for failure. I am much more interested in findingways to fix these schools than in analyzing who's at fault.

States and districts have a legal obligation to holdadministrators and teachers accountable, demandchange and, where necessary, compel it. They havea moral obligation to do the right thing for thosechildren—no matter how painful and unpleasant.

Yet, few districts in America have risen to the challenge.Too many administrators are unwilling to close failingschools and create better options for these children.There are some exceptions: Hartford, Pittsburgh,Denver, New York, Oakland, and D.C.

In a few isolated cases, failing schools were taken overby charter organizations, such as Green Dot in L.A.and Mastery Charters in Philadelphia. Some of theseturnarounds are showing real promise.

Finally, in a number of cities and states—Alabama,Tennessee, New York, Chicago, Miami, andBaltimore—affiliates of the NEA (National EducationAssociation) and AFT (American Federation ofTeachers) have taken over failing schools

I closed about 60 schools in Chicago, some for lowenrollment and some explicitly because they were failingacademically. We reopened about a dozen of theseschools with new leadership and staff. Some are runby the district, and some are run by the Academy forUrban School Leadership, a non–profit partner. All ofthem use union teachers.

Today, these schools are doing much better. Our firsttwo turnarounds—Dodge and Williams—have morethan tripled the percentage of kids meeting standards infive years.

Sherman Elementary saw a five-point jump in thepercentage of students meeting standards in the firstyear. Harvard reduced absences by five days per studentin the first year. And Orr High School saw a 15-pointjump in attendance in its first year.

Turnarounds aren't easy. It requires you to build trustwith parents. The way it plays in the media can polarizepeople. Some adults are still protesting me back inChicago for closing schools, but it was the right thingto do.

The parents in these turnaround schools now talk abouttheir kids “looking forward to school for the first time,”coming home and “talking about their teachers.” Theysay it's “a totally different atmosphere” even thoughit's the same schools with the same kids and the samesocioeconomic conditions.

It gives you hope that anything is possible with enougheffort and determination and the right people. That'swhat we need in schools all over America. The fact is there are still way too many schools that don't pass the“would we send our own kids there?” test.

And some of them, by the way, are charter schools. Thecharter movement is one of the most profound changesin American education, bringing new options tounderserved communities and introducing competitionand innovation into the education system.

All across America we see great charter schools, fromNoble Street in Chicago to IDEA Academy in Texas,Inner–City Education Foundation and Partnerships toUplift Communities in Los Angeles and FriendshipPublic Charter Schools in D.C.

What I like most about our best charters is that theythink differently.

There are approximately 5,000 schoolsin this chronically underperformingcategory, roughly 5 percent of the total.About half are in big cities, maybe athird are in rural areas, and the rest arein suburbs and medium-sized towns.This is a national problem—urban, rural,and suburban.

The Denver School of Science and Technology servesgrades six to 12 . They take the sixth–graders on collegevisits. Those children spend years choosing a college—instead of months—and 100 percent of their graduatesgo on to four–year colleges and universities.

North Lawndale College Prep is in one of Chicago'smost violent neighborhoods, yet they cut securitystaff and hired social workers instead. That extrapersonalization is one reason that more than 90 percentof their graduates are going to college.

I was just at the North Star Academy Charter Schoolin Newark (N.J.), where they have reversed theachievement gap. Their kids are outperforming others inthe state and every single graduate was accepted into afour-year college. These results speak for themselves.

So, I'm a big supporter of these successful charterschools and so is the president. That's why one of ourtop priorities is a $52 million increase in charter school funding in the 2010 budget. We also want to change thelaw and allow federally funded charters to replicate.

But the CREDO (Center for Research on EducationOutcomes at Stanford University) report last weekwas a wake–up call, even if you dispute some of itsconclusions. The charter movement is putting itselfat risk by allowing too many second–rate and thirdrateschools to exist. Your goal should be quality, notquantity. Charter authorizers need to do a better job ofholding schools accountable—and the charter schoolsneed to support them—loudly and sincerely.

I applaud the work that the Alliance is doing with theNational Association of Charter School Authorizersto strengthen academic and operational quality. Weneed that, and we also need to be willing to hold lowperformingcharters accountable.

I closed three charter schools in Chicago and turnedaway more than 100 proposals because they were notstrong enough. There should be a high bar for charterapproval, and in exchange for real and meaningfulautonomy there must be absolute accountability.

In some states—and the CREDO report singles outArizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio andTexas—accountability is minimal. That's unacceptable,and instead of hearing it from me or from CREDO,the education community should hear it from you.Just as the American Bar Association polices thelegal community and the AMA (American MedicalAssociation) does the same for the medical profession,you must get more serious about accountability.

I want to salute the California Charter SchoolsAssociation, which recently announced anaccountability proposal that links charter renewal tostudent achievement and growth. We should watch thisclosely and see if it can become a model for other states.

We also need to work together to help people betterunderstand charters. Many people equate charterswith privatization and part of the problem is thatcharter schools overtly separate themselves from thesurrounding district. This is why opponents often saythat charters take money away from public schools, butthat's misleading. Charters are public schools, servingour kids with our money. Instead of standing apart,charters should be partnering with districts, sharinglessons, and sharing credit. Charters are supposed to belaboratories of innovation that we can all learn from.

And charters are not inherently anti-union. AlbertShanker, the legendary head of the AmericanFederation of Teachers, was an early advocate. Manycharters today are unionized. What distinguishes greatcharters is not the absence of a labor agreement, butthe presence of an education strategy built aroundcommon-sense ideas: More time on task, alignedcurricula, high parent involvement, great teachersupport, and strong leadership.

All of these qualities exist in good traditional schoolsas well. We know what success looks like. I see it themoment I enter a school. It's clean, orderly, the staff ispositive and welcoming, and the kids and the classroomare the focus. I see award-winning school work on thewalls. I see discipline and enthusiasm in the children.I see parents engaged and teachers collaborating oninstruction.

The hard part is to replicate those conditionseverywhere, and you need to challenge yourselves andchallenge each other to turn one success into a hundredand a hundred into 200.

At the same time, when you see charter schools that arenot measuring up don't defend them or make excusesfor them. Admit that the adults in that building, forwhatever reason, just can't get it right and somethinghas to change.

Children have only one chance for an education. You'regiving them that chance. That's an enormous duty and Iam grateful for every one of you who willingly took onthat responsibility. I'm especially grateful to those of youwho are succeeding.

But I came here today to ask you to do even more.We need everyone who cares about public educationto take on the toughest assignment of all and get inthe business of turning around our lowest–performingschools. That includes states, districts, nonprofits, forprofits,universities, unions, and charter organizations.

I know your typical approach is to start new schoolswith a few grades and ramp up over time. I respect thatapproach. It's a smart, successful strategy and we don'twant you to stop. The president and I have expended agreat deal of political capital urging states to lift chartercaps and allow more charters to open—and states areresponding. Illinois raised its cap and Tennessee cameback into session to pass a charter expansion proposal.

But over the coming years, America needs to find5,000 high–energy, hero principals to take over thesestruggling schools—and they will need a quarter ofa million great teachers who are willing to do thetoughest work in public education. We will find themin the union ranks and the charter community, thebusiness world and the nonprofit sectors. We won't findthem overnight. I don't expect a thousand to show upnext fall. We can start with one or two hundred in thefall of 2010, and steadily build until we are doing 1,000per year.

We have great charter networks like Aspire, KIPP,Achievement First and Uncommon Schools. You'resteadily getting to scale. Today, I am challenging youto adapt your educational model to turning around ourlowest–performing schools. I need you to go outsideyour comfort zones and go to underserved ruralcommunities and small cities. We are asking states anddistricts to think very differently about how they dobusiness. Your knowledge and experience can help shapetheir thinking.

Just as the American Bar Associationpolices the legal community and theAMA (American Medical Association)does the same for the medicalprofession, you must get more seriousabout accountability.

We have a lot of money to support this work. Asidefrom the $5 billion in the Race to the Top and Invest inWhat Works and Innovation funds, we have $3.5 billionin Title I school improvement grants. We're seekinganother billion and a half in 2010. That's $5 billionspecifically targeting turnarounds, providing hundredsof thousands of dollars above normal funding levelsfor every turnaround school. And with the support ofCongress, we will have even more money in subsequentyears to support this work.

Leading foundations and the national education unionsare both interested in turnarounds. Nonprofits like NewSchool Venture Fund, Teach for America, the NewTeacher Project and New Leaders for New Schools willalso play a role. In the coming months, we will developan application process that spells out exactly what we mean by turnarounds—but let me paint a rough picture for you.

At a minimum, for a turnaround to succeed you haveto change the school culture. In most cases, simplyreplacing the principal is not enough. We wanttransformation, not tinkering.

We have four basic models in mind. Some will workbetter in big cities while others are more suited tosmaller communities. And we're still working thisthrough, so we welcome your ideas.

The first option is based on what we did in Chicago. Weawarded planning grants in the fall so new principalsand lead teachers could develop and adapt curriculumto better meet the needs of the students. During thespring, they begin recruiting teachers and they take overthe school in June.

Under this model, the children stay and the staff leaves.Teachers can reapply for their jobs and some get rehired,but most go elsewhere. A few leave the profession,which is not all bad. Not everyone is cut out forteaching. Like every profession, people burn out. In ourview, at least half of the staff and the leadership shouldbe completely new if you really want a culture change,and that may very well be a requirement of the grants.

Our second option also involves replacing the staff andleadership and turning it over to a charter or for-profitmanagement organization. As I mentioned, GreenDot, Mastery Charters and AUSL are doing this, butwe need more of you to get in the game. I know thisis tough work, but there is an upside. You start with aschool full of kids so there is no student recruiting andyou also get a building, which has been a big obstacle formany charter operators.

Obviously, you need to build a full staff more quickly,but that can be done. I am confident that many charteroperators will figure this out and succeed brilliantly. Ialso recognize that you won't always succeed. I acceptthat, but what I won't accept is a nation that turns itsback on millions of children in failing schools whilesuccessful models are flourishing in the next communityor the next town.

Our third turnaround model keeps most of the existingstaff but changes the culture in the following ways.Again, we are open to input on this, but at a minimum:

  • They must establish a rigorous performanceevaluation system along with more support,training, and mentoring.
  • They must change and strengthen the curriculumand instructional program.
  • They must increase learning time for kids duringafternoons, weekends, and in the summer, andprovide more time for teachers to collaborate, plan,and strategize.
  • And principals and leadership teams must begiven more flexibility around budgeting, staffing,and calendar.

They must use everything we know about how to createa successful school culture—but do it all at once—withenough resources to get the job done. This approachmakes more sense in smaller communities where thereisn't a ready supply of new teachers and leaders, andwhere the current staff won't have other job options.This model also gives unions an opportunity to takeresponsibility for fixing schools without replacing staff.We are beginning a conversation with the unions aboutflexibility with respect to our most underperformingschools. I expect they'll meet us more than halfwaybecause they share our concern. They understand thatno one can accept failure.

But we should also be crystal clear: This model cannotbe a dodge to avoid difficult but necessary choices.This cannot be the easy way out. It has to work andshow results—quickly—in real and measurable waysin terms of attendance, parent involvement, andstudent achievement.

All of these models assume a year or more of planning.We should be starting today to build teams that willtake over schools in the fall of 2010. Schools anddistricts can use Title I funds right now to start theplanning process.

The last of our four turnaround models is simply toclose underperforming schools and reenroll the studentsin better schools. This may seem like surrender, butin some cases it's the only responsible thing to do. Itinstantly improves the learning conditions for thosekids and brings a failing school to a swift and thoroughconclusion.

Now let me also make something very clear:Closing underperforming schools is a state andlocal responsibility. It's up to state and districtsuperintendents and the political leadership. If theywon't make these choices, I can't force them to do it. Myjob is to support the work—provide funding, help definesuccess, and drive the public consensus toward thedesired outcome. But the people who run our schools,and the parents who depend on them, must demandchange if they want it to happen.

I came to Washington because I believein education. I know that change ispossible. I know we have the talent andthe ideas to succeed. The only questionis whether we have the courage to dowhat's right for kids. We've seen whathappens when caution trumps courage.Nothing changes and kids lose. Butwe've also seen the opposite—wherebold leaders have fought the status quo.

And this only works with the full support of thecommunity—the faith-based, the political, the socialservice agencies, the police, the boys and girls club—andall of the other institutions that serve children andfamilies. A principal can't do this alone.

I came to Washington because I believe in education.I know that change is possible. I know we have thetalent and the ideas to succeed. The only question iswhether we have the courage to do what's right forkids. We've seen what happens when caution trumpscourage. Nothing changes and kids lose. But we've alsoseen the opposite—where bold leaders have fought thestatus quo.

We've seen traditional public schools where creative anddedicated educators built strong teams, boosted parentalinvolvement, and raised student achievement. We'veseen it in charter schools where gutsy entrepreneursabandoned lucrative careers, staked a claim in strugglingcommunities, and now are producing miracles.

There is no shortage of courage in this room. Youwouldn't be here if you weren't risk-takers. So I'm askingyou once again to put your reputations on the line andtake on this challenge. I'm asking for your help becauseI believe in you. I'm asking because I am hopeful. I'masking, above all, because our children need you andAmerica needs you.

We may never have an opportunity like this again—thispresident, this Congress, $100 billion, and a broad andgrowing consensus around the importance of education.So this is our time and this is our moment. This is ourchance to transform the one thing in society with thepower to transform lives. The path to success has neverbeen clearer.

The education reform movement is not a table wherewe all sit around and talk. It's a train that is leavingthe station, gaining speed, momentum and direction.It is time for everyone everywhere to get on board.Thank you.