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Could "tanking" help end The Achievement Plateau?
Trust the process?
For years the Philadelphia 76ers floundered in middling success: good enough to get into the playoffs, not good enough to win it all. This purgatory for basketball teams — and other sports teams — has a name: the mediocrity treadmill.
In the last decade, many teams, my beloved (despite the pain they cause me) Phillies and Sixers have tried a novel approach to get off the mediocrity treadmill: tanking. To tank is to assemble a roster bereft of talent so teams intentionally lose in order to get better.
How? In MLB and the NBA (and other leagues), teams at the bottom of the standings often get the highest draft picks, which can turn into young, talented, “high-ceiling” players with very cheap contracts. Teams tell fans to “trust the process,” to endure a few years of pain because these valuable players (sometimes called “assets” by teams, but that’s dehumanizing and we’re not doing that here) will eventually lead to championship parades.
In the next week or so, the School District of Philadelphia will announce a new cohort of schools to enter the “Acceleration Network,” a group of schools with consistently low scores on the School Progress Report. Once in the network, the schools will get an influx of cash and additional staff to help get them off the mediocrity treadmill and win a figurative championship for their community.
This approach to fixing public education — creating “turnaround schools” — has been around for some time, but the impending news and the fact that a few, close colleagues’ schools are up for turnaround got me wondering — is there a place for tanking in education?
My school has experienced steady growth on the School Progress Report — 37% in three years before the pandemic stymied the formula used to calculate the scores. That growth has moved us to the “Reinforce” tier, though by just a single percentage point.
Our reward? Fewer dollars. You might be inclined to think that “reinforce” means we should get more money to keep getting better — kind of like a nascent company that shows good early results and attracts more investors, right? Nope. Instead, the prevailing view is that we’re doing ok enough to redirect our district’s (very) limited resources to other, more struggling schools.
It took a tremendous amount of work — building trust and improving instruction among our existing staff, convincing excellent teachers to work in a rebuilding school, and stretching a thin budget to support a positive student climate without neglecting instruction — just to sneak us in the door of the “reinforce” tier.
And there is still a tremendous amount of more work to be done. Note from the link above that our student achievement has basically been flat (plateaued!). Our overall improvement has been supported mostly by an improved school climate and the “progress” category, which measures how our students perform relative to their expected performance on state tests, a complex and controversial measure called “value-added assessment.”
Part of me wonders — worries, really — if we’ve peaked. Maybe now we’ll be stuck on the mediocrity treadmill, just like the Andre Iguodala-led Sixers when they competed annually for the 8th seed just to get bounced in the first round of the playoffs. We don’t have the student achievement scores to sustain continued, consistent success. In the formula (which is now being revised), one year of poor progress scores or poor attendance could send us back down to the lowest tier.
If we were to tank for a few years, would those high draft picks — an assistant principal, a social worker, a reading specialist, a math specialist, and additional discretionary funds — help us build a stronger foundation (aka, draft Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) for long-term success?
It certainly wouldn’t be without risk: even though the Sixers look to be a top-tier playoff team this year, there are plenty of reasons to believe they lack enough talent to win a championship. And the Phillies are going to spend a boatload of money in player payroll this year and very likely continue their long drought of postseason play. Yikes.
To be clear, I would never intentionally derail my school’s progress. My students and community deserve our best every single day. And I do often think about the turnaround school where I worked as a 6th and 7th grade English teacher. It was the toughest school I ever worked in. Despite an infusion of resources, it cycled through principals and teachers in its first five years in turnaround. But now, almost a decade later, it seems to be making steady growth. And I wonder: should we trust the process? Next week, I’ll look more closely at the research on turnaround schools to explore that very question. Thanks for reading. Have a great week.