Déjà vu on turnarounds

The feds are spending $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants to “turnaround” the bottom 5 percent of schools. But we’ve tried this before with no success, writes Rick Hess, who warns, We’re not learning from our mistakes.

Avoiding Déjà Vu: Lessons from the Federal Comprehensive School Reform Program for the Current School Turnaround Agenda discussed a new WestEd report (pdf), on the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (CSRD).

First enacted in 1998, and wrapped into No Child Left Behind, CSRD required low-performing schools to implement eleven “school reform” components in return for federal funds. The eleven entailed: proven methods and strategies, comprehensive design, professional development, measurable goals, support from staff members, support for staff members, parent and community involvement, external assistance, evaluation, coordination of resources, and scientifically based research. Good stuff, right? Thoughtful, based on careful research, backed by new funding, yada yada.

The results? Dismal.

Compared to similar schools, CSR schools were less likely to implement the 11 reform elements; the “reformed” schools showed no gains in reading or math over a five-year period.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s new SIG model for turnarounds won’t work either, Hess predicts. Charter operators aren’t eager to take on very bad schools. Closure works only if “there’s plenty of room at terrific schools that will welcome these kids, and if it won’t disrupt those schools.” Which there isn’t.

As for the “fire half of ’em” turnaround model, I’ll just note that firing half your employees usually isn’t a one-time solution. Most well-run outfits, private or public, don’t fire half their folks in one big bonfire, replace them, and then enjoy a miraculous transformation. Rather, weeding out mediocrity is a natural, sustained part of how they manage their team. That’s not an option here.

School improvement requires “practice, fidelity of implementation, and on-the-ground commitment” by local leaders, Hess writes. The feds can’t make that happen.

Update: Inside School Turnarounds by Laura Pappano is “a no-nonsense book delineating, sometimes in excruciating detail, the circumstances that surround genuine and courageous attempts at urban school reform,” writes Graham Down on Ed Next. Improving test scores isn’t enough, writes Pappano. “Culture, attitude and student aspirations” also must change dramatically.

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  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Isn’t it know that more money is not the answer, replacing teachers and administrators are not the answer…is no one in education looking at the root cause of the challenges with these schools that make them “failing”? It doesn’t sound like it…does anyone in education look for the root cause?

  2. With all due respect, what other root causes are there than funding? Okay so using that funding to replace staff may not be the answer but the basis of a school is the teachers. Closely followed by the environment. What else can they try to improve? surely it cannot be down to the education board to overhaul society.. the only other possible cause I can think of is the economic conditions in the area local to the schools, which again is far from being in the school’s remit. Have you any suggestions as to what the root cause is?