In most urban school districts, “turnaround” is a dirty word. Turnaround schools are first identified as failing and left to languish for some time in obscurity. Then, when the student test scores finally become so embarrassingly low that something must be done, the principal and most of the staff vanish in a burst of housecleaning, followed by new mandates with or without new money.
Look at New York’s Renewal Schools. By the end of this school year, Mayor Bill de Blasio will have spent $582 million on 78 of the city’s most persistently struggling schools. The money is buying the usual turnaround supports, like more time for teachers to hone their craft and community-based partners to help make sure kids and families get health care, dental care and counseling. Plus, in an unusual—and expensive—bonus, Renewal Schools have added an extra hour to their school day.
De Blasio promised “fast, intense progress.” But so far, he hasn’t gotten it. “Renewal Schools have not been improving any faster than the system [as a whole],” Columbia University researcher Aaron Pallas told the New York Times.
Real Change in Schools Demands Staying Power
Meanwhile, in Chicago, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL, could be an important factor behind the city’s impressive learning gains for struggling elementary students.
AUSL got its start in 2001 by creating an innovative urban teacher residency program (the Chicago Teacher Residency) and were learning that real, sustainable and transformative change would come only through whole-school improvement.
In 2006, AUSL took its work to a new level by agreeing to serve as the district’s primary support for turnaround schools. Partnering with the district to staff and manage whole-school improvement took their work to a deeper level and gave it greater impact.
Today, AUSL manages 31 schools serving 17,000 students: Many live in the most underserved communities of the South and West sides of Chicago, where good schools have long been in short supply. AUSL schools are neither district- nor charter-run; instead, as contract schools, their teachers are members of the Chicago Teachers Union yet their principals have considerable freedom and autonomy to manage as they see fit.
Some years ago, AUSL was considered controversial in Chicago. Though AUSL schools are unionized, the Chicago Teachers Union complained that the turnaround process displaced teachers and students. At times, local parents and community partners have questioned why a third-party contractor should be running their neighborhood schools. However, as Sarah Karp noted in a 2012 Chicago Reporter story, AUSL has managed to allay their concerns.
This October, the Bridgespan Group published a study showing that students in AUSL elementary schools start third grade far behind national averages on tests, but their later scores rise to meet or even exceed national averages. Student growth in these schools far exceeds district averages. Today, nearly half of AUSL schools are among Chicago’s top 10 percent for student growth on the NWEA MAP test.
I’m no statistician, but those gains sure sound a lot like the overall district gains Stanford researcher Sean Reardon noted in research released late last week. Districtwide, he observed that many third-graders start off testing below national averages but come very close to that level by eighth grade. Reardon noted that Chicago’s learning gains for elementary school students surpass those of 98 percent of districts across the country.
Meanwhile, Bridgespan cites AUSL as the largest and most experienced “innovation zone” in the United States, a set of schools given autonomy and freedom to experiment in exchange for accountability for outcomes. AUSL is only one of two of these innovations studied that has shown proven and sustained gains in student achievement.
AUSL’s Recipe: Better Preparation, Reduced Teacher Churn
If AUSL’s innovation zone is a factor in Chicago’s improved test scores, what’s their secret recipe for success? I’ll wager it’s AUSL’s strong teacher and leader preparation model and long-term commitment to data-driven school transformation. About half the teachers working in AUSL schools were trained through AUSL’s yearlong Chicago Teacher Residency program, and to-date has trained over 1,000 teachers to teach in high-needs communities.
Today, the residency targets aspiring teachers and career-changers. The residency requires substantial time in the classroom under the supervision of a master teacher, in addition to customized classroom learning, and requires a four-year commitment to Chicago Public Schools in exchange for a break on student loans and a MAT or M.Ed.
This combination of strong preparation and commitment to the long haul breaks the cycle of inexperienced teachers and leaders and the churn that is a hallmark of struggling schools.
While there’s no doubt that many factors are involved in producing the outstanding improvements in student test scores we see in Chicago, AUSL has been deeply involved in the work for more than a decade at scale and has had real impact.
And as it continues to evolve as an innovation zone, it’s worth thinking about whether the lessons they’ve learned about teacher and leader preparation and data-driven school transformation could and should be applied more broadly, both in Chicago and around the country.