When Success and Failure Look the Same

Topics: Education Policy

You don’t have to spend too much time in education to run into two often-frustrating facts:

  1.  Too many children are being devastatingly failed by their schools and the system as a whole.
  2. Different people have radically different ideas of how to support the most vulnerable children in the system.

One second, I’m fired up about new ideas to improve students’ education experiences; the next, I remember that most victories have to be taken with a grain—or a heap?—of salt. It seems that there are always two sides to any set of data.

Enter various state actions to create new districts for turnaround schools: Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Tennessee’s Achievement School District, or Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority. Are they on their way to success? It looks like it if you’re reading this or this. But if you’re getting your information here, here or here, you may soon be convinced that these districts have achieved nothing but total failure.

While each argument does have compelling points to consider, education debate prefers to settle into a comfortable dichotomy of all or nothing, depending on who you like to follow on Twitter (Ravitch or Rhee, anyone?). When it comes to state interventions in Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan, I tend to think that the smallest progress is a step towards success, while the true signs of victory or failure are further down the road. Of course a district of the lowest-performing schools will be a low-performing district. The real question is: What are the benchmarks for improvement, and are they being met?

A layer deeper into this discussion hits on how to measure the success of these districts. Most would agree that test scores, while valuable, should not be the sole measure. KnowledgeWorks has even started to dig into what a new and improved accountability system could look like to support a competency-based system, thinking through what indicators, academic and beyond, that best convey the success of a school.

One potential indicator for a better accountability system involves how families feel about the school. In a 2013 article from The Atlantic, Sarah Carr touches on the community response in Memphis to the takeover of a number of their schools. Like the academic results, the community response has been mixed, often due to alienation between communities and apparent outsiders coming in to run the schools. School leaders recognize their initial shortfalls in valuing their students’ communities, and like the academics, it remains to be seen whether the community aspect of these turnaround districts result in success or failure.

Will the Recovery School District, Achievement School District, Education Achievement Authority prove to be assets or detriments to the communities they serve? Given the schools’ poor performance leading to the formation of these districts and beyond, anything possible must be done to do better by kids. In her article, Carr says that “whether the ‘portfolio’ approach succeeds in Memphis in the long-term will likely depend on whether its backers can strike a balance between respect for localism and desire for results.” While only time will tell the success of state interventions in Memphis and beyond, shorter-term results should continue to be heeded to create the best possible education for the students involved.

What do you think about turnaround districts? How should we measure their success?