To Fix Failing Schools, Target Troubled Students?

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Original Article: 

One kid at a time. That’s how Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization based in New York, approaches schools in tough neighborhoods, where principals “say they can hardly see their teachers’ work through the fog of students’ extreme behavior.” The organization is involved with 20 schools in New York City and three in Washington, helping teachers identify and work with individual students in trouble, not just for their sakes, but for the sake of the school. These are students, writes Anna M. Phillips, who could “shatter a classroom’s composure or a school windowpane in an instant.”

Turnaround’s approach is “based on the premise that teaching can be made easier if schools confront the 5 percent of students who behave the worst.” Working with Turnaround, the schools hire social workers and train teachers in ways of responding to outbursts without yelling or sending kids to the principal.

That 5 percent approach reminded me of Dr. Jeffrey Brenner’s work in the hospitals of Camden, N.J. (He was profiled by Atul Gawande in January in The New Yorker.) Dr. Brenner identified the 1 percent of hospital patients who accounted for 30 percent of the city’s costs, and focused his attention on improving their health before their next hospitalization. Turnaround encourages a school to focus attention on the physical and mental health of its most at-risk students before the next incident. The parallels are clear: both organizations are “hot spotting” in an attempt to tackle problems before they’re beyond easy help.

Results for both Turnaround and Dr. Brenner are positive. “Hot spotting” reduces long-term costs in health care, and at the very least it reduces stress in schools. An independent study of five middle schools in the Turnaround program found fewer student suspensions and teacher absences, and one principal described the effect on the school’s atmosphere as “dramatic. We just turned a big corner.”

But the issue with the approach is the same in both health care and education: big upfront costs without any immediate gains to show for it, and — especially in schools — requiring effort that appears to be outside their bailiwick. So far the results of Turnaround on test scores seem minimal, and test score improvements are what administrators like to see. In the long run, an approach that works with the students most likely to suddenly require a huge dose of the school’s resources should lead to a more consistent school day. More consistency should help schools to keep their best teachers and students from leaving for calmer pastures. But as James Shelton, the Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, said, that sounds like “so much kumbaya.” Fortunately, he believes in Turnaround and its goals. “The research for what Pam is doing is significant and growing,” he said, “and for us to ignore that is not only at our peril, it’s just stupid.”

Turnaround offers a way for schools to cope with kids who can’t be expected to leave their other issues at the door, just as Dr. Brenner’s patients couldn’t be expected to stay out of the emergency room without consistent help in managing their primary care and housing needs. But if you believe that schools should focus on nothing more than classroom education, Turnaround is just misplaced resources. Should schools keep their focus on academics, or should they do more for a child who doesn’t seem to be able to get help anywhere else?

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