How do you turn around a failing school?
Charlotte elementary school shows more money is not the answer
Ann Doss Helms is the best education reporter in the state of North Carolina, and she published a fascinating article last week about how a failing elementary school in west Charlotte turned itself around.
The short version is this: Allenbrook Elementary was a classic example of a struggling high-poverty school: 85% of students qualify for free lunch, and two-thirds are classified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state. And for years, it was mired in poor performance. Plenty of students earned As and Bs on their report cards, but fewer than a third of them were proficient in reading or math. An abysmally small percentage were meeting growth targets, and the school earned an “F” grade from the state.
Then in 2020 came a new principal, Kimberly Vaught. She cast a new vision for the school, reorganized the support staff, engaged parents with frank conversations and motivated students with big dreams. Then the school began a three-hour tutoring program after school three days a week, where students drill down hard on reading and math.
Less than three years later, Allenbrook earns a “C” grade from the state. More than half of its students are proficient in reading and math, including much higher percentages in some grades and subjects. Every single Allenbrook student met academic growth targets in the most recent year.
It’s an amazing success story.
However, this turnaround is as frustrating as it is fascinating. Education leaders have long cast about for strategies to help poor-performing, low-income schools succeed. Everyone’s looking for a successful model to replicate, or at least some best practices to invest in. At a recent Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt characterized today’s approaches to school improvement as “scattershot,” and she’s right.
One reason why is this caution turnaround experts always give: “There’s no surefire formula for turning around a single school. And no one has managed to take a successful turnaround effort to scale,” as Helms points out in a follow-up article warning us not to take too many lessons from Allenbrook’s example.
This is true, but I’m not convinced that there’s no way to plot a systematic path forward. Treating successful school turnarounds as miraculous aberrations keeps North Carolina from doing more to help students in need.
From Allenbrook’s case study in particular, here are a few takeaways I believe are worth considering.
There’s plenty of money already
The typical argument from the left is that all poor-performing schools need is more money. Allenbrook Elementary is a prime example of how this simply isn’t true. Low-income schools are awash in federal and state dollars, as Vaught points out in the article. The money is there — the key is how it’s used.
Excellent principals matter
Vaught seems to me like a rock star. Before turning around Allenbrook, she did something similar with another low-performing school in Charlotte, Lawrence Orr Elementary. A good principal knows how to marshall the resources available, set and enforce high standards, communicate effectively with parents and set a compelling vision for an excellent school.
Vaught is a school turnaround specialist, and she’s not the only one in North Carolina. The question is: How do we get more excellent principals like Vaught into our schools? How do we maintain this type of leadership once the specialists move on to the next project? And how do we get all the knowledge and experience from them and teach it to other school leaders?
This isn’t news. The WestEd report on improving N.C. education (the one that’s central to the Leandro case we’ve discussed at length in weeks past) puts principal recruitment near the top of its list. Other turnaround case studies have found the same thing. “Turnaround does not come in a box,” State Board of Education member Amy White said in 2020, as reported by EdNC. “It is not a program. It’s a leader.”
Too often, though, the quick answer to getting this done is “pay principals more.” This job is largely done now, but experience shows that isn’t enough. There are vetting and recruitment and training problems to solve, too — and they simply haven’t been figured out.
Engaging parents matters
Too many schools and school districts treat parents as an obstacle to overcome rather than the people ultimately responsible for a child’s education. Time and again in Helm’s article, there are examples of Vaught engaging parents respectfully. Parents want their children to succeed, but there are all manner of reasons why a family may have difficulty. Allenbrook shows that there are ways to work with parents effectively, and it starts by recognizing that families have a lot on their plates.
It’s time to get uncomfortable
I think one big reason why the state education bureaucracy discounts examples like Allenbrook is that they’re worried about principals at failing schools getting their feelings hurt. Yes, it is extremely hard to turn around a poor-performing school, but it clearly can be done. Figuring out how means getting candid and holding administrators accountable when they don’t get the job done.
The children of North Carolina deserve high-quality schools, and it’s worth hurt feelings to achieve them. We need more hard conversations — public conversations — about what separates principals like Vaught and schools like Allenbrook from others that continue to fail.
Under Republican leadership, the General Assembly has shown it is willing to invest money in evidence-based strategies that show promise of success. But there needs to be a plan, a plan that probably needs to step on a few toes in service of results.
3 things of note
What it takes to run for higher office: $5 million or a die-hard fan base
Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson did a fascinating interview with the Do Politics Better podcast this week, in which he said he’s stepping down after one term in part because he saw no path for running for higher office — governor or U.S. Senate.
What would it take to have that path? Dobson said one of two things: A floor (not a ceiling) of $5 million in fundraising, or a grassroots base of supporters willing to “walk across broken glass” to get him elected.
“If there was a movement for a pragmatic brand, then that would be a case. Or if I won the lottery, maybe that would be the other way that I would consider it,” he said about his own prospects.
I think Dobson about nails it, not just for himself but for any candidate seeking the governorship or a seat in the U.S. Senate. However, his money target is likely too low. Five million just doesn’t seem like it would cut it anymore. I’d love your take on what that number should be — email me at email@example.com — but it’s probably more like $15 million at least.
With record-low unemployment, state government can't hire enough workers
The labor shortage is hitting state government agencies particularly hard, with more than 16,000 positions currently sitting vacant, WRAL reports. That's nearly double the average number over the past decade.
What's unclear is exactly how big of a problem this is. For example, WRAL cites 200-odd open positions at the State Highway Patrol. This seems like a big issue, but the agency says it has been able to fill in gaps by redirecting officers away from "nonessential" activities like public safety presentations and putting them back on the road.
Other cases are more troubling. The prison system, for example, has started hiring private security for the perimeter of its detention facilities, freeing up state employees to handle things inside the prisons. The department says that costs additional taxpayer money. Labor Commissioner Jos Dobson told the Do Politics Better podcast that he's short some 20% of his elevator inspectors and a comparable percentage of compliance officers.
In response to these cases, some state agencies are increasing pay and beginning to offer signing bonuses, after getting authority from the General Assembly. This is reasonable, and it's how the market should work.
This hiring situation presents an excellent opportunity for a thorough review of the size of state government and how many of these vacant positions are actually necessary. It means government can be made more efficient without layoffs and pain. There should be no "nonessential activities" at taxpayer expense.
Of course, the executive branch should be the one undertaking this, but there's been no mention of anything from Gov. Roy Cooper or the Department of Administration.
Gov. Roy Cooper joins Gavin Newsome to dream up pro-abortion executive orders
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has joined an "alliance" with California Gov. Gavin Newsome and other Democrats that aims to share ideas for how to promote abortions in their states, the AP reports.
In Democrat-controlled states, the so-called Reproductive Freedom Alliance shares model legislation their legislatures could consider to expand the practice of abortion. In states like North Carolina, with a GOP legislature and Democrat chief executive, the goal is to come up with ideas for executive orders and other fiats that can accomplish the same goals.
Other governors partnering with Cooper and Newsome include Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin. Republicans control the state Senate in Pennsylvania, as well as both houses of Wisconsin's state legislature.
1 good idea from another state
Arkansas considering bill to radically increase teacher pay, create universal school choice
A bill to create universal school choice in Arkansas is moving swiftly through the state legislature. The Learns Act would create a school choice program that allows parents to receive up to 90% of the state’s per-pupil expenditure to use toward a private school or other education expenses. This equates to roughly $6,700 based on today’s spending. All students in the state are expected to be eligible by 2025.
The Learns Act would also raise the base teacher pay to $50,000, give all teachers an immediate $2,000 raise, and give teachers and literacy coaches the ability to earn bonuses of $10,000 for hitting performance targets, x. The bill overwhelmingly passed in the Arkansas state Senate, and now moves to the House. It’s already supported by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
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