Turnaround Without Turmoil

by Robert Pondiscio
January 9th, 2009

Are conflict and confrontation necessary ingredients in a school turnaround?  Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher files a provocative column about a Maryland school that is succeeding without the kind of bare knuckle brawls that are drawing national media attention to Michelle Rhee and the nearby Washington, DC school system.

Fisher goes to Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring where scores were so low eight years ago that a state takeover loomed. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast and Principal Jody Leleck negotiated with the teachers union to add extra hours to the work week for extra pay. “Teachers would offer no more excuses about poor kids from dysfunctional families; expectations would soar. About a third of the faculty left; Leleck hired 27 veteran teachers that first summer” he reports. 

Rhee’s faceoff with the Washington Teachers’ Union creates a dynamic different from the cooperation between Weast and Montgomery County Education Association President Bonnie Cullison. She said she hears Rhee telling teachers, ” ‘You’re not doing the job,’ as opposed to ‘Let’s work together.’ You cannot make it happen in a district where you set up conflict”…Weast won’t criticize his D.C. counterpart, but he will say that narrowing the achievement gap is about expecting all children to work hard and love learning. “You can do it anyplace if you treat people like you want to be treated,” he says.

Today, 81 percent meet reading proficiency standards this year, up from 47 percent in 2003. “Broad Acres did this without Rhee’s reform tactics,” Fisher points out. ”No young recruits from Teach for America, no cash for students who come to class, no linkage of teacher pay to test scores.”  And what’s happening inside the classrooms?

Too often, schools desperate to boost test scores become grim factories in which children are force-fed rote skills. But at Broad Acres, teachers coach each other to keep kids engaged in rich material for its own sake. In Andrea Sutton’s fifth-grade class, 16 kids sit on the floor, jumping up to explain to one another the roots of the American colonists’ grievances with the British. The teacher’s voice never rises above a stage whisper as she plies the class with questions that would fit nicely in a high school course.  With all the pressure from No Child Left Behind, it’s so easy to cut out history and science,” Bayewitz says. “But these kids are going to need those complex skills in high school and college. And these kids are going to college.”

Claus von Zastrow at Public School Insights observes that Fisher’s piece reminds us “that school improvement does not necessarily require a death-match between high-profile ‘reformers’ and the education ‘establishment.’” Fisher is promising a follow-up column Sunday on ”a D.C. school that matches Broad Acre’s population, put presumably not its methods.  Stay tuned.


  1. Thank you for pointing CKB’s readers to this important and inspiring story, which should be widely read in the education community. If this is a “no excuses” school (and I pray that it is), then all schools should operate under this philosophy: treating people in ways that will bring out their capacity and commitment to kids.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 9, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  2. We should stop using the word “excuse.” The article talks about the difficulties the students have, but says that he is not giving an excuse. However, someone else giving the same facts might be denounced for making excuses for low performance. When Michelle Rhee’s schools were ranking low recently, she said that it was “tough” to compare her urban students to non-urban students. Is that an excuse or not? Based on the common definition I think it is.

    I suggest we use words like “reason” instead of “excuse.” What do other people think?

    Comment by Tim — January 9, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  3. I think Eduwonk (Andrew Rotherham) said it best: “I’ll be the first one to say that Michelle Rhee’s style carries some backfire potential, but to compare her challenge in turning around almost the entire D.C. school system, demonstrably one of the nation’s most broken and with all the politics that go with that, to the challenge of turning around one school in affluent Montgomery County as a WaPo columnist does today is preposterous.”

    Comment by DJ Butler — January 9, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  4. Per Fisher’s column, “88 percent of students qualify for meal subsidies and three-quarters come from homes where English is not spoken. Two-thirds are Latino, 22 percent are black and the rest are Asian. Kids move in and out at a breathtaking rate; only 30 percent of fifth-graders have been there since first grade.”

    Obviously independent verification is needed here, but that doesn’t sound like an “affluent” school.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 9, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  5. I do think the Ed-Reform debate is increasingly colored by the “conflict drives news coverage” dynamic. The low-conflict stories make feel good pieces on slow news days, the high-conflict stories make the cover of time and dominate the blogosphere.

    And once Michelle Rhee and Andy Rotherhan get into explaining why DC is different and more challenging than Maryland, it seems to me that “no excuses” has fallen into the “I’m a freedom fighter, you’re a guerilla, he’s a terrorist” semantic trap. “Excuses” are what people who oppose you make.

    Comment by Rachel — January 11, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

  6. Conflict is also easier, Rachel. I remember well my first year in the classroom. World-class attention seekers and behavior problems. I spent all of my time merely trying to win and maintain order. When I finally got my arms around classroom management, and came face-to-face with exactly how far behind my kids were I remember thinking, “Could you guys just go back to acting out again? That was the easy part.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 11, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

  7. It’s not only feel-good uplift vs. failed-system bomb-throwing we’re seeing in the contrast between D.C. and Montgomery County. There’s another important idea embedded in the flap around this story: scale matters.

    Single schools like Broad Acres really can be saved, because tools like professional development, better curriculum, more time and community-building commitment actually can work at that level, where people area not anonymous cogs and individual kids’ progress can be carefully tracked. The definition of “success” gets very muddy when the unit of measurement is larger than a school. Even in Detroit, a district that’s arguably (perhaps unbelievably) worse than D.C., there are schools where test scores are pretty good, and principals fight tooth and nail to keep the teachers they have, because–all things considered–the kids are doing a lot better than you’d might expect. But the system is a failure.

    It’s the large urban superintendent’s dilemma. On New Year’s Day, the Detroit Free Press ran “headlines we’d like to see in 2009″ and one of them was “Michelle Rhee Signs Contract as New Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools!”

    I like what Tim had to say: sometimes, “excuses” really are reasons.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 11, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  8. I think optimal district size is one of the under-explored questions in education reform. If I had to make a guess, its somewhere from 3000 – 20,000 students — big enough to have some possibility of diversity, but small enough that most people know most other people.

    Around here there tends to be pressure to merge districts — but its really hard to make an argument that the small districts are less efficient than the larger ones. My sense is that when you start having assistant superintendents for geographic regions (rather than for “business” or “curriculum”), you’d be better off with separate districts.

    Comment by Rachel — January 11, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

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