Voices in Education

Know What You’re Doing
Great consternation has greeted Secretary Arne Duncan’s stated goal of turning around 5,000 of the country’s lowest-performing schools over the next five years.

Some of the more commonly expressed sentiments are along the lines of: “Doesn’t he know that no one really knows how to turn around such deep-rooted dysfunction?”

Recently I was talking with one of the principals whose school I profiled in It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, Barbara Adderley, about this very subject. I thought I would pass along her words: “If you know what you’re doing, you can make change.”

Simple words from someone who has been there, done that.

Barbara Adderley took one of the lowest-performing, highest poverty elementary schools in Philadelphia (and that’s saying something) in 2001 and turned it into a school that performed, for the most part, better than most other schools in Pennsylvania. She did it by knowing what she was doing.

Similarly, Deb Gustafson, the principal at Ware Elementary, which I profile in my new book, How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools, arrived at Ware Elementary School in the summer of 2001, just after it was named one of the first schools in Kansas to be in need of improvement. When she walked into the building for the first time as principal, the stench of urine hit her from the filthy bathroom. “Every facet of the building was broken,” she told me. Student achievement was low and the student suspensions high. Today, the school is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Gustafson was able to lead the school to success because she knew what she was doing.

Gustafson and Adderley (who is now working in Washington, D.C., with Chancellor Michelle Rhee) both know that the key to school improvement was to ensure that every possible minute is used for high-quality instruction. That sounds simple, but no one should mistake simple for easy.

Educating children is a complicated task, made more complicated when children live in poverty or chaos. But Adderley, Gustafson, and many others (some of whom I have written about in my books) have demonstrated that schools serving low-income children can succeed.

Secretary Duncan’s goal of turning around 5,000 schools in five years has been called by some commentators “education’s moon shot.”

But if we learn from Adderley, Gustafson, and all the other educators who have succeeded in turning around seemingly hopeless schools, it will look more like a drive across country—occasionally grueling, but achievable with the knowledge and resources we currently have.

And, by making sure that the children in the lowest-performing 5,000 schools in the country are learning, we will move a little bit closer toward ensuring that all children in the United State become educated citizens.

About the Author: Karin Chenoweth is a long-time education writer who currently writes for The Education Trust. She is the author of “It’s Being Done” (Harvard Education Press, 2007). From 1999 to 2004 she wrote a column on schools and education for The Washington Post, and before that was senior writer and executive editor of Black Issues in Higher Education (now Diverse).