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How to fix America's worst schools

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None of the turnaround initiatives has caused the kind of furor that Central Falls did. In December, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, even appeared with Duncan in support of a turnaround school in Prince George's County, Md., that was replacing much of its staff.

Still, Mr. Van Roekel emphasizes that the turnaround model in general is one he opposes as harmful to both students and teachers (in the case of the Maryland middle school, the district had worked with the local union in formulating the plan).

"I don't think the research shows that when you take adults out who are part of what gives these kids continuity in their lives – I don't think this works," he says. "Yes, the culture has to change, but I believe the way you change the culture in the building is by bringing the people together to say what is it that we want. Culture can't be shifted from the outside."

No issue involving turnaround schools is more divisive than what to do with the existing teachers. Many turnaround experts – and a number of principals – argue that without replacing the staff, it is impossible to achieve the radical change that's necessary, or to get the adults to embrace it.

Unions and others say such wholesale turnovers often do away with the people who know the kids best, including many who are outstanding teachers. They argue that outside the big urban districts, it's simply not possible or practical to change the teaching staff. Parents, in particular, are often outraged to see teachers they love lose their jobs. Besides, some schools have managed to improve without replacing staff.

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