Turning around a failing DCPS school isn't impossible, but you need the right principal

There's no set formula for the notoriously difficult task of turning around a failing school. But if you find the right principal and give him or her enough resources and freedom, you might be on your way.

Photo of Wheatley Education Campus from DCPS website.

The pace of improvement at DCPS schools has generally been painfully slow, but a few have seen significant gains in proficiency in recent years while continuing to serve high-poverty populations. One of those is Wheatley Education Campus in Trinidad, where proficiency rates have more than doubled since 2008. Is there a way to replicate that success?

When Scott Cartland took over as principal of the preK-8 campus 6 years ago, he was in for a shock. He had spent the previous 7 years as an administrator at two high-performing elementary schools in Upper Northwest. Wheatley—or, as it was then known, Webb-Wheatley—was something else entirely.

"I felt like we walked into total chaos," he says. "The culture was just so negative and dysfunctional."

In a way, Cartland was lucky: the school's performance had been so poor that it was being reconstituted under the federal No Child Left Behind law. That meant Cartland was free to replace the staff, and he ended up keeping only 4 or 5 teachers out of about 30.

But that had its disadvantages as well. With so many new teachers, "the kids don't know anybody," he says, and "relationships are important."

Proficiency rates—the usual measure of a school's success—barely budged for the first several years. But the past two years have seen a marked increase. The 2013 rates were 37% in math and 31% in reading. That may not sound impressive, but consider that in 2009 they were 13% in both subjects.

Change takes time

One of the lessons Cartland draws from his experience is that change takes time. And it takes even more time before it shows up in proficiency rates.

DC's standardized test scores group students into 4 categories: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The system is set up to measure a school's success primarily by the percentage of students in the Proficient or Advanced categories.

But at a school like Wheatley, where over half the students were Below Basic in math in 2008, it takes a while before significant numbers can move up to Proficient. The vast majority will move up to Basic first, and the school gets little credit when they do.

Another challenge is the tremendous amount of movement between schools in DC. Cartland says that a third of his students are new every year, and about 20 of them arrive after having been "kicked out of charters." So each year the tests are assessing a different group of students.

How has Cartland managed to get the school on an upward trajectory despite these obstacles?

First, he was careful about who he hired. He looked for teachers and administrators who would be willing to work as a team, and who would "buy into the idea that this is important work, not just a teaching job."

Cartland says that to be successful at a high-poverty school, teachers need to be able to build strong relationships with kids, and they need excellent classroom management skills. Perhaps most important, they have to be constantly striving to improve, and they can't quit when the going gets tough. "It never gets easy," Cartland says.

Second, he focused on creating an environment that was calm enough to allow teaching to take place. That required "lots of conversations with teachers" about making behavioral expectations clear and being consistent about consequences. Creating this kind of positive school culture, Cartland says, isn't just about punishing kids but also about "giving kids the tools to work out problems."

Finding the right partners

Third, Cartland entered into a number of beneficial partnerships with other organizations. The Flamboyan Foundation has helped teachers engage parents in their children's education. Turnaround for Children has been crucial in connecting kids who are struggling with the social services they needed.

Reading Partners provides tutoring. (Disclosure: I volunteer as a tutor with Reading Partners at Wheatley.) A couple of other organizations sponsor cultural field trips that are tied to the curriculum.

Another kind of partnership that Cartland clearly values is the DC Collaborative for Change, or DC3, a network of 9 DCPS elementary schools that share ideas and engage in professional development together.

Some of the schools are struggling to improve, like Wheatley and Walker-Jones Education Campus, while others, like Janney and Mann in Upper Northwest, serve a more affluent population. The premise of the collaboration is not that the higher-performing schools will "teach" the lower-performing ones, but rather that all of these schools can learn from one another.

Cartland says being part of DC3 has helped him maintain a consistent instructional philosophy. It's also enabled him to operate with more autonomy than some other principals have, because DCPS has given the DC3 schools greater control over things like budgeting and professional development.

And now that Wheatley has a positive school culture more or less in place, Cartland is turning more of his attention to academics. With the help of a Breakthrough Schools grant announced today, next year he'll introduce a new competency-based approach in the middle school grades. He says that will give kids more ownership of their educational experience and also allow them to move at their own pace.

That approach, he says, should also enable Wheatley to engage and challenge kids at any ability level, including children from middle-class families now moving into the neighborhood. The school hasn't yet seen any effects of gentrification, but Cartland says Wheatley will be ready if and when that happens.

Autonomy plus the right leader

The relative autonomy Cartland has enjoyed may be the key to Wheatley's transformation. It's enabled him to basically choose the staff he wanted and to shape the school largely as he saw fit. Every school is different, Cartland says, and there's no fixed menu of improvements that will work across the board.

Some argue that autonomy is the basic reason for the success of high-performing charter schools. And some have advocated giving greater autonomy to traditional public schools in hopes that it will have similar effects.

But autonomy only works when the individuals exercising it have clear goals and understand how to achieve them. Most DCPS schools where principals have had the authority to replace teachers haven't seen the kind of improvement Wheatley has. Low-performing schools that have made progress, including Kelly Miller Middle School and Tubman Elementary School as well as Wheatley, have been led by strong principals.

And while there are programs that have brought good results in a number of high-poverty schools, like Flamboyan and Turnaround for Children, even the best program will only work if a school implements it well. And good implementation depends largely on the school's principal.

So if we're going to replicate the kind of success Wheatley has experienced, the first step may be to replicate Scott Cartland, or at least identify others like him. Then we'll need to give those principals the time, the freedom, and the resources to figure out what will work to improve their schools, and to make it happen.

The question is: with so many low-performing schools in DC, are there enough Scott Cartlands out there to go around?

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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Well, who's job is to find that right principal?

by Finders keepers on Apr 29, 2014 10:41 am • linkreport

I'd love to see more details on the "kicked out of charters" comment. I thought that charters weren't allowed to kick kids out. If they can kick out kids with behavior problems, then that's a huge unfair advantage for charters.

by Rob on Apr 29, 2014 11:48 am • linkreport

@Rob, charter schools expel a LOT more kids than DCPS does. With that said, charters vary very widely on expulsion rate. Here's a good article to start learning more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/fewer-expulsions-in-dc-public-charter-schools-in-2012-13-year/2013/10/15/5212a95a-35c3-11e3-80c6-7e6dd8d22d8f_story.html

Personally, I think there probably needs to be a middle ground: charters shouldn't get to dump difficult kids into DCPS (I've heard this happens a lot right after Count Day, and again right before the DC-CAS) but DCPS may also need to expel more kids who are harming other students.

Both should start with techniques like in-school suspension and good behavioral health services, but at some point kids need to be out of general classrooms and getting their education at home or special schools.

by sbc on Apr 29, 2014 12:50 pm • linkreport

should have added this: http://gppreview.com/2013/08/05/discipline-in-the-district-are-expulsions-really-driving-charter-success/ which indicates that stricter discipline policies don't fully account for greater success in charter schools.

by sbc on Apr 29, 2014 12:53 pm • linkreport

With so much of the public discussion about "education reform" centered--unfairly IMO-- around the teachers, it's nice to see an illustration of the tremendous importance of school leadership in putting dysfunctional schools on the right path.

by thm on Apr 29, 2014 1:07 pm • linkreport

Charters absolutely can and do kick kids out, and the neighborhood schools are required to take them in, in the middle of the school year. The actual number of kids kicked out is small as a percentage of the school population, but in my anecdotal experience the number is under-reported, because for every kid that actually gets kicked out of a charter, there are others whose families are pressured to remove their kids under threat of being kicked out.

This is a big problem.

by Tim H on Apr 29, 2014 3:55 pm • linkreport

@sbc: Thanks -- that was very informative, and very troubling. If charters are kicking out a lot more kids than DCPS is -- as the statistics strongly indicate -- that could hugely skew the comparison between the two.

And the second article you posted doesn't fully address the problem. Its analysis is generally well-done, but it relies on the assumption that there were no peer effects from the expelled students (i.e., kicking out a student could remove a low-scoring student from the school population, but won't have any effect on other students' scores). If the students who are expelled were actually lowering other kids' scores (which is not hard to imagine -- one highly disruptive kid in a classroom can affect the whole class), then that study will underestimate how big an advantage it is to be able to kick them out.

by Rob on Apr 30, 2014 7:28 am • linkreport

Johnson Middle in Ward 8 needs a Scott Cartland.

by Jamie on Apr 30, 2014 7:29 am • linkreport

@ Rob, I agree that the difference in expulsion rates can make it hard to compare. But (and I know you didn't say this) but I'm not convinced the solution is to make charter expulsion rates more like DCPS rates. It might be for DCPS to expel more students, or better yet for both types of schools to have more alternatives where kids who aren't functioning well in general classrooms can go.

by sbc on Apr 30, 2014 1:12 pm • linkreport

We were at a school that had one of these turnarounds. It was an awful experience. I have never seen so many teachers so angry and stressed and not able to figure out what was being asked of them. At the time what the principal was suggesting was not crazy, but it was very challenging. That principal is gone, the school has done better, but I wonder if it could have been a less traumatizing experience.

by DC Parent on Apr 30, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

Not sure about this, specific school and the numerous programs mentioned, but charters, over all, are masters of expulsion-improvement, where they either kick out low performers, like ELL and SpED, just before test time.

Do not fool yourself and think that this is only troubled children, many are hard-workers, who, even if they are *somehow* allowed into the charters, to be counted for the $$, they are tossed to the curb before any tests.

Charters, as they exist, today, are not there to find new methods and improve public education, they are simply private schools, funneling resources from the real public schools that desperately need them!

The BadAssTeachers.org is a group of over forty-five thousand public school teachers and advocates who want real, lasting changes to our system that stops the funneling of money to corporate pockets - this gentleman, through a number of ways, may have 'saved the school' but you cannot clone one person and Michelle Rhee's horrible tactics have proven that iron-fisted chancellors, with no accountability, are *not* the answer.

Working, together- the community, teachers, and administrators, is the only way to ensure lasting change that benefits the students of today and tomorrow!

by N. Enser on May 1, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport

Sorry, that should be http://BadAssTeacher.Org - seriously, if you care about public education in the US, not simply one school, that may have a 'magic administrator', give them a look!

by N. Enser on May 1, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

@N. Enser--

You do realize that Wheatley is a regular public school?

At risk of taking this thread even further off topic, the generalizations about charters that you're using do not contribute constructively to the discussion about schools in DC.

The charter schools in DC that are the highest performing and most in demand were formed by groups of parents or educators. There is no sense in which they are "simply private schools." Among these are Mundo Verde, which is combining bilingual English and Spanish education with a core focus on sustainability; LAMB, which combines Montessori methods with bilingual English and Spanish education; and Yu Ying, which is a dual immersion Chinese and English school. All of these very much in the business of "find[ing] new methods and improv[ing] public education." These approaches to education are found almost nowhere within traditional public schooling.

DCPS does have Oyster, but there is far more demand for it than there is space. And after four decades, why hasn't DCPS opened another dual immersion school? It's only the charters that are starting to meet the demand for this highly sought after educational model.

by thm on May 1, 2014 2:45 pm • linkreport

Changing the culture of the school to a positive, supportive one is difficult to do, especially if you are going to do it one teacher at a time in the hiring practice. Far better is to bring in a teaching strategy that incorporates the desired culture and makes teachers' live easier while improving student success. The Pax Good Behavior Game based on the GBG that has been tested in Baltimore schools for over 30 years could make everyone's lives easier. The original GBG tested by Johns Hopkins University showed classroom disruptions could be reduced by up to 90% resulting in more time spent teaching on task with resultant improvements in grades, graduation rates and even college admissions. But the amazing impact was on the students' lives in that GBG students were ~50% less likely to do drugs, smoke, have suicidal ideation and many other negative behaviors. Further research shows a reduction in special education services and even ADHD from just one year of GBG in first grade. Pax GBG is even better in creating a whole-school culture. Somebody do the research. Start with https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Dennis_Embry/publications or just Google Pax GBG. I have seen it in action. One school reduced principal referrals in half in just 3 months with only a third of the teachers trained. Rich Seitz

by Richard Seitz on Oct 1, 2015 11:23 am • linkreport

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