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EDITORIAL: For true turnaround, struggling schools need great teachers

The Clark County School District’s lowest-performing campuses desperately need a turnaround. Unfortunately, addressing some of the problems at these schools involves moving the problems to other schools.

Last week, the school district announced three more schools required the “turnaround” designation, which results in administration and staff changes, and additional spending. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Trevon Milliard, Mountain View Elementary School and Bailey Middle School will get new principals, who will have the authority to replace their entire administrative staff, as well 10 to 15 teachers and support staff. Manch Elementary will retain its principal, but she will be granted the same power to replace personnel.

The turnaround label is an acknowledgment that a school’s employees aren’t getting the job done, and that replacements are more likely to do better. But educators who willingly leave or are forced out of turnaround schools are merely reassigned to other schools at the same status and salary.

Sadly, the practice of shuffling bad teachers from school to school until they retire is so common in public education that it has its own term: “The dance of the lemons.” For a turnaround designation to have real accountability, the forced transfer of a teacher would, at a minimum, have ramifications for a performance evaluation. The fact that it doesn’t underscores the importance of rating teachers, not merely to push bad educators out of the profession, but to help good teachers become great.

Turnaround schools need great teachers. But a turnaround designation offers no guarantee that great teachers will step forward to replace departing ones. That’s because the school district gives great teachers no financial incentive to remain at urban, low-income, high-minority-enrollment, high-transiency schools with poor academic performance and frequent disciplinary problems. Their salary isn’t different if they’re in the suburbs or the city, if they’re a star performer or an underperformer. This system encourages teachers to pursue opportunities at schools in safer neighborhoods, with more stable enrollments, and ensures a constant churning of staff at struggling campuses.

Mountain View, Manch and Bailey join 11 other campuses with the turnaround label. Unlike the existing turnaround schools, which receive generous federal grants to bolster instruction and remediation, the new turnaround schools will share about $2 million in state funding for academic initiatives such as an extended school day and new specialists.

More money won’t help if it fails to put high-quality educators into low-performing schools. At least the School Board voted last week to extend its partnership with Teach for America, the nonprofit that recruits and trains teachers for hard-to-fill specialties in high-poverty schools. Up to 150 teachers will be hired over two years, with the district providing $600,000 in training and recruitment fees. Considering two-thirds of Teach for America instructors remain with the school district for more than three years, that’s money well-spent.

The entire turnaround program is proof that public schools need reform if we’re to give all children a superior education. Provide merit pay. Offer salary premiums to highly rated teachers who accept assignments at troubled schools. And give parents more choices, through vouchers and charter schools, so their children aren’t trapped at an underperforming campus. That would be a turnaround.

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