Turn around, end up in same place

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to “turn around” 5,000 low-performing schools. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to save failing schools, writes Andy Smarick in Education Next. Millions of dollars have been spent trying with little success.

Despite years of experience and great expenditures of time, money, and energy, we still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent.

What does work? Closing bad schools and starting new ones from scratch, he writes. Operators of high-performing, high-poverty schools prefer to start fresh so they can create a new culture, a NewSchools Venture Fund study found.

Tom Torkelson, CEO of the high-performing IDEA network agrees: “I don’t do turnarounds because a turnaround usually means operating within a school system that couldn’t stomach the radical steps we’d take to get the school back on track. We fix what’s wrong with schools by changing the practices of the adults, and I believe there are few examples where this is currently possible without meddling from teacher unions, the school board, or the central office.”

Chris Barbic, founder and CEO of the stellar YES Prep network, says that “starting new schools and having control over hiring, length of day, student recruitment, and more gives us a pure opportunity to prove that low-income kids can achieve at the same levels as their more affluent peers. If we fail, we have only ourselves to blame, and that motivates us to bring our A-game every single day.”

When Duncan ran Chicago schools, he closed persistently low-performing schools. But elementary students didn’t benefit, because they were transferred to other low-performing schools, reports the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.  The only students who showed progress were the small number who moved to high-performing schools.

Update: New York City wants to close as many as a dozen failed schools and turn them into charter schools, reports the New York Post. But charter operators worry they won’t have flexibility to run the new schools, said Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York State Charter Schools Association. “It makes no sense to try to turn around a school [while keeping] all the impediments that got it into trouble in the first place,” he said.

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