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2013 Spring Issue 4 (May 3, 2013)

“Dramatic intervention in Public Schools:” Emily Schultz ‘05 Addresses School Reform

May 5, 2013
By Jonathan Lin

Carleton Class of 2005 graduate Emily Schultz has been working on cutting edge U.S. education issues, being part of Teach for America straight out of college and then working with the governor of her home state Alabama to introduce local charter schools. In her presentation she discussed the practices and strategies of “failing school turnaround” as a policy initiative designed to tackle major American shortcomings in public education.

Aware of the general malaise surrounding the U.S. education system, Schultz started by sharing “a lot of good news that we don’t hear about enough,” before cautioning her audience to remember that the successful and top-performing schools “are disproportionately found in higher income regions.” To statistically illustrate the challenge of narrowing the achievement gap, Schultz revealed a study of U.S. income quartiles, where only nine percent of students from the lower quartiles completed college, versus fifty four percent of those from higher income quartiles. “We clearly have packets of great work happening here,” she stressed, “and yet they are not happening in enough places.”

Addressing the core belief that all children can achieve higher levels of education, Schultz moved into discussing what failing institutes look like, and how turnaround schools serve to tackle these problems. Typically defined as a chronically low-performing school that receives a large amount of resources and “dramatic intervention,” turnaround schools are expected to deliver results within three to four years. “Yet this definition can be interpreted in many ways,” Schultz pointed out, “because dramatic intervention doesn’t just mean a textbook change, or painting the walls a different color: it’s usually vast staff changes and the adjustment of behavioral expectations. And resources doesn’t just include money: it is usually the realigning of current resource use.”

She moved into discussing her job in education policy and as a consultant, adapting what she called “a partnership model.” This approach is characterized by identifying current problems on the ground, then finding charter schools with a suitable alignment in curriculum and resource focus, and match these needs with demand. “The conditions for a good partnership are crucial,” Schultz emphasized, stressing the strength of great teachers and principals with a clear vision on improving the quality of education. Other crucial elements included the lineup of staff at a particular school, and a clear signal from day one “that the school is entering a new era and picking up the pace.” Perhaps most important to Schultz is the element of autonomy, where a particular school is allowed the flexibility it needs to deliver results. “The turnaround concept is born from the ground,” she stressed, “and is solidified -- not started -- by Federal funding.” Not an indictment of central offices dealing with education policy, Schultz accentuated that “the people on the ground know best,” and top-down initiatives can only be effective if there is a willingness to let individual teachers and principals at specific schools operate in ways they see fit.

In conclusion, Schultz emphasized examining the system at a macro level, where “it is a shame to improve kids in elementary school, only to see them go to a poor-performing middle school and watch their progress unravel.” For her, it was crucial to narrow the education gap from early on, where pre-kindergarten demands great attention. Schultz highlighted that in tackling the immense challenging of turning around American education, policymakers and teachers must be willing to stay open-minded about trying different strategies. “There is no single ‘silver bullet’, no ‘100% solution,’” she concluded. “But there may be one hundred ‘1% solutions’.”

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