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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  1. There is unfortunately not a whole lot of research out there to justify Smarick’s faith in closure and restart options either.

  2. So, does Arne Duncan have any experience in improving student performance that would justify his appointment to direct the implementation of Obama’s huge (expensive) education reform agenda?

    Based on the dismal results of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, Obama cannot claim any success in the education arena, either. I’d like to be hopeful since their rhetoric sounds positive, but all I foresee is huge spending on ineffective “innovations” using our children as guinea pigs.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    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 you get to choose your students (including the opportunity to say, “buy in to the school culture or leave”), you have an opportunity to be successful. If you are a local public school that has to keep everyone, you may be screwed.

    In a better world, we would allow all schools to be selective–and provide alternatives to those youngsters who can’t or won’t succeed in a regular school.

  4. it’s not clear charter operators want to take over.

    Wait – you mean even those who are running charter programs don’t see them as a magic bullet?

  5. Roger,

    Other countries do much better at educating the whole gamut of kids. The salient difference between their systems and ours, it seems to me, is that their content-rich curricula build a solid foundation for achievement in the early grades. By the time their kids reach 7th grade, MOST have mastered math, science, etc. to a degree that many of our 12th graders have not. There is no way to turn around a high school whose students are the victims of a bankrupt elementary ed. There’s too much repair work to be done. By that point, frustration with failure has bred myriad behavior problems. What we CAN do is prevent failed high schools by modeling our elementary schools’ curricula on those of Finland, India, Japan, Taiwan and the other countries that do unionized public education for all successfully.

  6. I am a firm believer in the free market. Government should provide a check that is only transferrable to schools to every student. Schools of all types (including those who focus on and specialize in special education and English Language Learners and any other type of group that needs special requirements) will pop up and blossom. Voucherize the entire system.

  7. If vouchers were $50,000/year/student, would there be a good reason as a parent to turn that money down? I’m looking for something more that telling me that it better be a real voucher that can be spent where you’d like. And I already know that this would be a huge burden on the tax-payers probably bankrupting many states. I only mention this as it seeems that vouchers are a red-herring. Its not vouchers people are opposed to its the amount of the vouchers that is contentious. Well, maybe people are opposed in principal to vouchers supporting religious eduction. Thoughts?

  8. Why would it be $50,000 a year? The vouchers would simply be i the amount that it costs to educated the average student in the district (or state, but district makes more sense as it is more locally oriented). The parent/guardian gets the amount to transfer to a school of their choice. I know that some people will object to the following, but religious schools (under my plan) will not be allowed to take part of the public voucher plan. They will have to remain as privately funded schools. Once we start funding religious schools, it is only a matter of time that maddrassas start applying for funding and there is no way to deny them if other religious schools have been accepted, so religious schools are out of the equation. Of course parents can always pay for private religious schools or sunday schools, but not on the public dime.

  9. Too bad the Supreme Court doesn’t see things your way then Swede since there’s nothing wrong with religious schools getting government money and there hasn’t been for a long time. Check out Pell Grants and G.I. Bill education benefits.

  10. Swede,

    That’s a good question. Why any amount? I just think that money is the real issue and not vouchers.

  11. Perhaps allen, but Pell grants and the GI Bill are narrowly tailored toward college age students. We are talking here about K-12 students, and I would assume that the Supremes take a rather dim view at religious schools being funded by the public. I am no expert, but they have struck down school prayer across the spectrum, so why would they accept publicly funded religious schools? Anyway, I am not making an argument here about religious schools, but rather my focus is on the bigger issue of how how educational system would strongly benefit from competition in the form of a voucher system.

  12. scott burns says:

    Actually, there is a substantial body of research about how to fix schools and boost achievement. Longer school years, rich curriculum with rigorous standards, principals as teacher leaders, and master teachers who are freed up to instruct their fellow teachers. Then there is the support network that needs to be put in place to help students and families living in poverty.

    What’s lacking is political will. These changes mean major changes to the educational system. No politician will support these changes because of their expense.