The term “turnaround” is often used to describe the need to significantly improve the performance of the chronically underperforming Kansas City, Missouri Public Schools (KCPS). Hiring new superintendents, importing expensive educational programs from publishers, expanding the use of computers, rearranging middle school grade levels, and other “silver bullet” shortcuts have had marginal impact on true student achievement; they have not turned the system around. What does it take to reinvent a school system so that it sheds the old culture and operations that have held it back and moves in new, more productive directions? Jobs, roles, long-standing ways of doing things often have to be given up. The experience in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a system roughly the size of KCPS, provides a current example and points out some avenues for change.
The Lawrence, Massachusetts school system was one of the most chronically poorly performing districts in the state on math, reading, graduation rates and other measures. Under a new state law, the district was put into receivership in 2011. A state-appointed receiver, a leading Massachusetts educator, replaced the board and the superintendent for 3 years (now extended to 6 years) and was given authority to make significant changes in structure, personnel policies, length of school day and other areas. The turnaround plan contains dozens of major reforms. Among those are:
- Shifting of authority from the central office to schools, with commensurate accountability based on a school’s ability to demonstrate performance
- Replacement of ineffective teachers and principals based on performance evaluation
- Longer school days in grades 1 through 8 and longer school years for 9th graders
- Partnerships with outside educational consultants
The receiver cut the central office staff by one-third, brought in charter school operators to take over some of the most poorly performing schools, encouraged schools to develop their own unique programs based on students’ needs, and engaged parents’ help with the schools.
The plan encourages continuous improvement by building a culture of high expectations. There are many more aspects. It is a “different model” in the words of the receiver, not business as usual. There are, of course, stresses as there are in any major change effort, including union relations.
After two years (this year’s data are not in) evaluators and the state are encouraged by the progress of the Lawrence district. Graduation rates are up and dropouts are down; test scores in math and language are up.
Everyone agrees that there is plenty more work to do, but there is a clear direction.