'Turnaround' is really Reconstitution, which failed in 1997 and keeps on failing

[The following is the testimony Jessie Sharkey delivered to the City Council Education Committee on February 22, 2010. Jesse Sharkey is now the CORE candidate for vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union and serves as union delegate at Senn High School, where he teaches history.]

There's a lot of fads in school reform, just like there's a lot of fads in weight-loss. The belief that turnarounds — that is firing the whole staff of a school and bringing in a fresh but inexperienced team — is every bit as discredited as crash dieting.

In Chicago we saw substantially the same policy, which was called 'reconstitution' fail in 1997. Re-engineering failed in 2000. We undertook turnarounds beginning in 2006 — and there's a lot of evidence that this latest face on an old fad is doing us more harm than good.

We have now seen enough of this experiment on our schools; we have evidence that is too persuasive to ignore:

(1) turnarounds have been associated with increased violence, as we saw at Fenger H.S.,

(2) the turnaround process has pushed veteran black educators out of the teaching force as they are fired and replaced with predominantly white novices, and

(3) the turnaround process has actually destabilized the teaching force and displaced a significant number of students in many of the schools where it is tried. Therefore, even the legitimate test score gains that CPS claims — and not all of them are legitimate — are based on a quick fix, that actually reduces the health of our schools overall, and will lead to a sad, but predictable reversal.

Without going on for too long, I want to go through each of these three claims in a little more depth.

1. Violence. No one is blaming school violence on turnarounds — that's a social epidemic that does not begin and will not end in the schools. But there's good reason — and plenty on anecdotal evidence — to show that destabilizing a school by firing its veteran staff is a bad idea. In early September, Derrion Albert, who attended the Fenger turnaround, was killed outside of school after weeks of gang violence dominated the beginning of the school year. No one knows if the tragedy at Fenger High School could have been averted if a veteran staff, who knew the neighborhood, and had a history with those kids, had still worked in the building.

2. The turnaround process has pushed veteran black educators out of the teaching force as they are fired and replaced with predominantly white novices. It is moreover the case that this is taking place in schools that serve the African American community — so not only do turnarounds have a negative impact on the diversity of the Chicago teaching force in general, the policy has the effect of depriving students of role models who look like them, and share their background. Chicago has 2,000 fewer African American teachers than we did in 2002. Turnarounds are a big part of this. In fact, the [federal] Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has upheld a complaint, filed by CORE, on behalf of black teachers whose schools had been turned around. This is a disparate impact case — meaning that driving veteran black educators out of Chicago's classrooms may not be the intent, but it is certainly the effect. Expect the Department of Justice to take up the investigation soon.

3. Finally, turnarounds do not achieve the goal of creating a stable, skilled teaching force at the schools in question. Take for example, AUSL, which is Chicago's most important turnaround operator. According to data compiled by Catalyst, the large majority of AUSL graduates are not still at the turnaround school three or four years later. This is not too surprising; nearly fifty percent of new teachers don't make it-but it does not serve these schools well.

Finally, I want to say something more about the historical parallel between turnarounds and reconstitution, which was tried and then abandoned in the late 1990's. In both Chicago and San Francisco, where reconstitution was first used in 1984, there was an emphasis on recruiting the best teachers for the targeted schools-as well as curricular and other supports which went into place after the school was reconstituted. And in both these cases the program was abandoned because those schools wound up with most of the same difficulties which they faced before the reconstitution-in fact, one of this year's turnaround targets, Marshall, was reconstituted in 1997! But this leads to the question-if a school system is going to make an effort to hire skilled teachers, as well as provide training and curricular supports for a school-why do you have to fire the entire staff in order to do that?

The turnaround process is like a fad diet-we're trying it because we're desperate for results. But like any diet that hurts our health, we'd be better off asking our doctor and using a little common sense. In this case take the advice of educators, not venture capitalists with a product to sell. Do not fire your most dedicated, veteran teachers who work at your toughest schools.


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