Society and Culture, Education

The School Turnaround Folly

The Obama administration’s Department of Education recently launched what I believe will become its most expensive, most lamentable, and most avoidable folly. Declaring that, “as a country, we all need to get into the turnaround business,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the availability of $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants.

Years of research have clearly demonstrated that efforts to fix our most persistently failing schools seldom work. Moreover, turnarounds in other fields and industries have the same distressing track record. (This Education Next article fully discusses this matter.)

If the secretary’s declaration were merely rhetorical, it would only demonstrate a lack of appreciation for the sad history of turnarounds. But it’s entirely more worrisome than that. During a speech at the 2009 National Charter Schools Conference, Duncan encouraged the nation’s best charter school operators to move away from their magnificent core competency—starting new schools for disadvantaged students—and get into the turnaround business. If they unwisely take him up on the offer, the opportunity costs could be staggering.

And of course, there is the matter of money. At $3.5 billion, this grant program is mammoth, meaning we are about to spend an enormous sum of money on a line of work with a remarkable track record of failure. Exacerbating the problem, the final guidelines allow for tepid interventions (the “transformation” model) to qualify as a turnaround attempt. While districts could choose to pursue more radical activities, history teaches us that few will.

What’s fascinating, however, is that the final departmental documents spell out just how unsuccessful previous school improvement efforts have been. The department even takes states and districts to task for their insufficient efforts in years gone by (see Education Week’s excellent summary here.) This makes the department’s permission of the weak transformation model so perplexing.

But it also brings into stark relief Duncan’s underlying philosophy about fixing failing schools. He seems to believe that we’ve failed to date because we haven’t tried hard enough, and that if states have all of this money and the federal government’s guidance, we’ll do much, much better.

I think the history of education reform and turnaround efforts in other fields refute that position. We’ve tried drastic fixes of the most chronically underperforming schools before and they generally haven’t worked. The for-profit sector has also found that its lowest performers seldom go from the very bottom to the top. Hence my advocacy for closures and new starts.

Nevertheless, the die is cast, I’ve lost, and we’re about to pursue school turnarounds with vigor. My hope now is that the department undertakes an evaluation of this effort (like it is doing with the Race to the Top) so we can learn from this massive investment and be better positioned in the future to address the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

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