"Our goal is to turn around the 5,000 lowest-performing schools over the next five years," said Duncan in announcing the administration's $3.5 billion investment in turnarounds. At these schools, he said, something "dramatic" needs to be done.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington studied how schools in an unnamed state spent their initial federal money and found that the funds "brought about change without question, but not the transformational change hoped for."
Plus, said author Sara Yatsko, there was a tendency to "throw everything at the problem at once" – extended day, mentors, group learning – without a clear theory of action or educational framework. "It was a recipe for disaster," she said.
There is no doubt that some changes have earned substantial school improvement. AUSL, which does not convert schools to charters, runs 10 schools where test scores and other indicators, including climate, have improved markedly. Don Feinstein, AUSL's executive director, credited a "teacher pipeline" created by the intensive residency program, which has attracted mid-career professionals and fresh college graduates for five-year commitments.
"We want individuals who have passion and drive [and feel a] moral obligation to go into the lowest-performing, high-needs schools in the city," he said.
The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools unites the mayor's office and the school district. Most of the schools are not charters, but contract schools, said Partnership CEO Marshall Tuck.
Leadership at 80 percent of the schools was changed and a major focus has been on including families, Tuck said. There is also a commitment to working with the teachers rather than replacing them all.
"There are so many low-performing schools, we have to find a way to dramatically accelerate the quality [of the existing teacher corps]," Tuck said.
At the 99th Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles, scores on the state's index that measures school quality have soared. Now its biggest problem is overcrowding – parents who had abandoned the K-6 school want back in.
Here in Philadelphia, Mastery Charter has achieved impressive results – transformed buildings, increased order and discipline, raised test scores, focused management – all working largely with the same students and mostly new, young teachers.
Hess doesn't discount these results, but worries about the capacity of such organizations to "scale up" and the notion, driven by this movement, that there is somehow a magic formula.
"No question, there are some organizations that seem to have some success at changing the culture or changing student performance," he said. "Mastery's one of them."
Still, he said, even if Mastery were to write an instruction manual, it's a fallacy to think that if others just followed it, "we could expect happy results."
Hess, like Yatsko, also worries that turnaround has focused too much on management and not enough on what teaching and learning need to look like long-term.
"It's not as if we know yet how profound" the impact of the changes will be on students' lives, he said. "I don't think policymakers can be confident to say there is a model that works, and we could do 10 times as many schools just like it somewhere else tomorrow. None of us are confident of that."