Are Large-Scale School Turnarounds A Myth?

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Tough editorial from the WSJ today, calling the “doubling down” on turnaround plans for schools, rather than simply focusing on creating more charters, a big mistake.

Like its predecessor, the Obama Administration is focusing its education policy on fixing failed schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls for a “dramatic overhaul” of “dropout factories, where 50, 60, 70 percent of students” don’t graduate. The intentions are good, but a new study shows that school turnarounds have a dismal record that doesn’t warrant more reform effort.

“Much of the rhetoric on turnarounds is pie in the sky—more wishful thinking than a realistic assessment of what school reform can actually accomplish,” writes Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. “It can be done but the odds are daunting” and “examples of large-scale, system-wide turnarounds are nonexistent.”

Mr. Loveless looked at 1,100 schools in California and compared test scores from 1989 and 2009. “Of schools in the bottom quartile in 1989—the state’s lowest performers—nearly two-thirds (63.4 percent) scored in the bottom quartile again in 2009,” he writes. “The odds of a bottom quartile school’s rising to the top quartile were about one in seventy (1.4 percent).” Of schools in the bottom 10% in 1989, only 3.5% reached the state average after 20 years.

… the reasonable conclusion is that children would be better served by closing these schools and starting new ones. In a recent article for Education Next magazine, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute notes that the most successful urban school models are run by charter organizations—KIPP, Achievement First, Aspire—that specialize in starting new schools.

Not only is the Obama Administration doubling down on turnarounds ($3 B in stimulus money, plus $1.5 B in the 2010 budget), but so is Massachusetts, with the convoluted, process-intensive “Innovation Schools”. Fact is, Massachusetts has tried to create charter-like (-lite) schools that could gain political support many times now: Pilots, Horace Mann (unionized) charters, Co-Pilots, Innovation Schools… How many bites at the apple before we simply say: If a school is failing the kids, the system (defined as the iron triangle of superintendents, school committees, and unions) has to pull its claws back in and allow a new autonomous school to open.

The closing to the WSJ editorial is tough, but after the Obama administration caved on the DC Choice program, we have little choice but to say, right on:

The President and Mr. Duncan talk about being “data driven” and “following the evidence.” In this case, the evidence argues against throwing billions more at turnaround schemes that fail as consistently as the schools they target.