Voices in Education

Q&A with Laura Pappano
Laura Pappano, award-winning journalist and writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women, discusses her book, Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories.

What does your book offer educators that can’t be found in other studies and reports?

I am not an education researcher, educator, or academic. I'm a journalist who has covered education for more than 20 years, so I bring a different perspective. It's my hope that Inside School Turnarounds offers educators both “aha!” ideas you get from watching other people do things, as well as a sense of affirmation around the difficulties and complications that come with this work.

Describe briefly how you approached writing Inside School Turnarounds.

I wanted this book to be rooted in reporting (even as it includes research) because I felt there was a compelling story of what turnarounds look like up close and in the moment. I very quickly focused on Hartford as a place to anchor my reporting, because the district had embraced dramatic change and was trying a lot of approaches at once. Plus [Hartford] superintendent Steve Adamowski had some previous turnaround experience in Cincinnati, so I was interested in the fact that he was not thinking about this kind of reform for the first time. Perhaps most powerfully, however, Connecticut is the second-richest state, yet it has some of the nation's poorest cities and is home to the largest education achievement gap in the United States. With the goal of closing the achievement gap at the heart of turnaround, Hartford seemed like an ideal place to do the bulk of my reporting.

What do schools undergoing turnaround share in common?

In the midst of turnaround, the schools I reported on were all extremely exciting places to be. There was a level of energy and “let's-figure-this-out-and-do-it” attitude that makes a turnaround a very compelling place. At the same time, I was always aware of the underlying worry: “What if doesn't work?” “What if everything we are pouring our energy into yields nothing?” And because so much is changing, there is a certain amount of disjointedness in the school—whether it's something as simple as teachers not all agreeing on what counts as a “dress shoe” in the new uniform code (“Are Timberlands ok?”), or as basic as having no ninth grade test scores or measures to know where incoming tenth graders are academically.

How can administrators know if they are on the right track with their turnaround efforts?

Most people agree that if you are on the right track, test scores go up, attendance increases, parent involvement rises, graduation rates improve, and so on. Clearly, this takes time—about three years, in many cases, to see some results. But I think it's also possible to get a sense earlier whether you are headed in the right direction. One of the most basic things is rather obvious: What is the school culture like? Do people treat one another well? Are teachers helping one another? Do they feel supported? Are they engaged and excited about what they are doing? Are students involved? Engaged? Has the school become a community that people want to be a part of—and are willing to work to improve? Justin Cohen of MassInsight made the point that school leaders should expect an “implementation dip”: that messy beginning when leaders start enforcing rules. Like cleaning out your closet, it can look pretty scary before everything has been put back in its place. But the first step is important: Taking everything out and figuring out if you keep it—or chuck it.

Alliances with entities outside the turnaround schools play a prevalent role in your book. How can schools benefit from alliances with outside organizations and businesses?

An important part of school turnaround has nothing to do with actual test scores or academic offerings. It has to do with helping students see a new vision that can make them understand how, why, and to what level they need to apply themselves. Students—particularly in poor, urban schools where parents may be working more than one job or students may be in single-parent families—need role models. Teachers can—and do—do some of this work, but students need formalized relationships with professionals in the community. Nonprofits like Citizen Schools can bring in lawyers, financial planners, doctors, dancers, filmmakers, and authors, and in essence help students see what they are capable of becoming. Companies like Cincinnati Bell, which provide tutors to help students pass state graduation tests and provide students who keep a 3.3 GPA access to laptops and cell phones, also give the students concrete incentives and relationships. CEO Jack Cassidy made the point that students will work harder for their Bell tutors than they will for themselves. Outside partnerships—done well—can put someone else in your corner.

If you could offer school administrators one piece of advice on implementing school turnaround, what would it be?

Find good leaders. If you are a good leader, find good teacher leaders. Build a team and be willing to be wrong—and willing to change if something isn't working. School turnaround is stunningly complex, exhausting work and you need a leadership team with a clear philosophy and vision so that when unexpected things happen (which they will), you have guideposts for getting through. And be kind, to the kids and to one another. Hard work is less onerous when you feel loved.

What is the most important lesson you have learned while working on Inside School Turnarounds?

That being an educator in school turnaround is very demanding and difficult work—but it may be some of the most important work happening today. There are so many smart, talented people in education now—if ever there were a time when we might actually, truly make poor urban schools great, this just might be the moment.

About the Author: Laura Pappano is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about education for more than two decades. The author of The Connection Gap (Rutgers University Press, 2001) and coauthor, with Eileen McDonagh, of Playing With the Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports (Oxford University Press, 2008), she is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women.