Please Join Today!
view counter

February 2010 Vol. 17. No. 4 Focus on School Turnarounds

Theme articles

Chicago: A national laboratory for school overhauls

Controversial approaches introduced by the former schools CEO, Arne Duncan, are now part of federal policy.

By by Meghan McHugh on Feb 2, 2010 03:42 PM
Photo: John Booz for Catalyst

Chicago’s approach of closing low-performing schools and opening new ones in other neighborhoods met with mass protests and charges of gentrification.

On the last day of school in 2004, parents of students in 20 of 22 neighborhood public schools in the Mid-South section of Chicago were told that their child’s school was slated for closure.

Over the following years, 60 schools across the city would be closed for low enrollment or poor performance. Meanwhile Chicago Public Schools (CPS), led by then-CEO Arne Duncan, promised to replace them with 100 new contract, charter, and CPS “performing” schools in an initiative called Renaissance 2010.

By 2009, Duncan was promoting his brand of reform on the national stage as President Obama’s education secretary, making “school turnarounds” a federal priority.

And in Philadelphia, schools chief Arlene Ackerman was attaching the “Renaissance” name to her own plan for restructuring Philadelphia’s lowest-performing schools.

As recently as November, Ackerman touted the Chicago model in testimony before the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee.

“Like Secretary Duncan, the School District of Philadelphia supports turnaround strategies and charter school strategies that support the expansion of high performers while forcing actions such as closure on all types of failing schools,” said Ackerman. She quoted Duncan saying that while school turnarounds and closings in Chicago under his tenure as CEO had been contentious, they were “the right thing to do,” adding, “Philadelphia is likewise committed to ‘doing the right thing.’”

But back in Chicago, the heralded Renaissance 2010 initiative is increasingly acknowledged to be a failure, and the school system now talks simply about “turnarounds” – yet another round of attempts to overhaul struggling schools.

Start of a ‘Renaissance’

The Renaissance 2010 plan was first announced at the Commercial Club of Chicago amidst massive public housing closures. It was easy for community residents to see it as more about political and business interests than school reform.

“It was clear that our neighborhood had been targeted for massive school closings … because of gentrification,” said Jay Travis, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in the Mid-South region, the area hardest hit by school closings. “It didn’t have anything to do with school improvement.”

A report from the Consortium for Chicago School Research (CCSR) confirmed community accusations that students displaced by closings often ended up in similar or even lower-performing schools under Renaissance 2010. Meanwhile, new schools have not delivered promised results in terms of student achievement.

A January analysis by the Chicago Tribune showed that state test scores from Renaissance 2010 elementary schools were no different than those of neighborhood schools, and that passing rates on state tests in Renaissance 2010 high schools were even lower than the district average.

Faced with a community backlash and lack of positive data from the new schools, CPS has pulled back from school closings. In the newest “turnaround” model, children are allowed to remain in the same schools, but the adult staff is replaced – down to the last lunchroom worker.

The latest round

Right now there are only 10 official turnaround schools in CPS, all of which are run either by the Office of School Turnarounds at the district or the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit partner that specializes in teacher training.

Although some in the community see a clear difference in this newer model with less student displacement, others remain skeptical.

 “The closings are disasters; turnarounds can be,” warned Madeline Talbott, a long-time community organizer in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago.

But she acknowledged that there are AUSL elementary schools that seem to work, and added that community members are “all looking to see” what progress students make in those schools.

One focus of positive national attention in Chicago has been Harvard School of Excellence, a neighborhood elementary school in its third year of turnaround under AUSL. Results are impressive: pass rates increased from 32 percent to 56 percent since the takeover. However, the influx of additional resources to turnaround schools makes it difficult to parse out exactly what is having the positive impact.

Harvard Principal Andre Cowling believes strongly that the transformation would not have been possible without the turnaround model. “It has to be that drastic to work,” he said, explaining that turnaround principals have the power to hire their entire staff, so they all “have the same vision.”

But Talbott argued that community residents, used to jurisdiction over their schools because of a tradition of powerful Local School Councils, felt the district’s turnaround initiatives have been top-down and condescending to teachers and parents. “CPS does not believe that parents have their own students at heart,” she said. “It is very frustrating to know that they claim to be on our side.”

Despite the positive results at Harvard, researchers remain skeptical of the model of replacing the whole staff.

“If you think about what is driving people who say all we have to do is change the adults in the building … that comes along with an implicit understanding that the faculty in that building are inept,” said Sue Sporte, associate director at CCSR in a January interview with Research for Action. “And maybe they are, but maybe they’re not.”

Sporte said, “It’s too soon” to say whether there are successful models of school turnaround in Chicago, but that a similar reform agenda in 1997 known as “reconstitution” can be considered a “failure” in hindsight.

“The research suggests … turnaround on its own doesn’t guarantee that what you’re going to get the next time around is any different than what you got the last time around,” observed Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and founding senior director of CCSR, in a recent web symposium. “We’ve seen these cycles of reform for many years.”

He said that the latest research from CCSR suggests instead a critical formula of five “essential supports” that schools need to dramatically improve: school leadership, parent and community ties, professional capacity of the faculty, school learning climate, and instructional guidance.

Bryk agreed that “there are certainly some people who don’t belong in classrooms” but stressed that replacing an entire staff does not address those critical needs. “You still have to work on the large group of people who are there who care deeply about our children and want to improve,” he said.

About the Author

Meghan McHugh is a member of the Notebook editorial board and on the staff of Children’s Literacy Initiative.

Comments (9)

Submitted by Joe Linehan (not verified) on February 3, 2010 10:56 pm

Greetings from Chicago. I'm part of a group of teachers called CORE. We've been fighting hard to stop these school closings in conjunction with GEM and several other community groups. One of the schools that they want to close for poor academic performance is Guggenheim. I just interviewed a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania who attended Guggenheim about her time there. She speaks more eloquently about why closing these schools is unconscionable than I ever could.

Submitted by Meghan McHugh (not verified) on February 4, 2010 3:19 pm

Thanks for visiting the site and posting your link, Joe - really interesting interview and great that we can share information and experiences across cities. I actually spoke with Jackson Potter from CORE while researching the article and am aware of the advocacy work that you are all doing on the issue of school closings and Ren2010...unfortunately couldn't fit everything in the piece!

Submitted by john thomas financial (not verified) on January 20, 2013 3:52 am
My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post's to be exactly I'm looking for. Would you offer guest writers to write content for yourself? I wouldn't mind publishing a post or elaborating on most of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome weblog!
Submitted by Vinicius (not verified) on February 4, 2010 10:57 pm

Obama's big mistake was hiring the incompetent Arne Duncan for Education Secretary. Now public education is up for sale as it is in Chicago. The poverty pimps are making money off the backs of our poor.

Download and read what has been done to support the development of strong professional communities in each school.
United States Is Substantially Behind Other Nations in Providing Teacher Professional Development That Improves Student Learning; Report Identifies Practices that Work

Submitted by Keisha Campbell (not verified) on February 5, 2010 1:58 pm

AUSL’s Harvard School is only one example of whole school transformation achieved with AUSL’s turnaround approach. I am the principal at AUSL’s Howe School. We have set specific year-one goals for improvement and we are seeing tremendous, measurable progress. Our goal was to reduce misconduct by half. Before the turnaround, there were 19 infractions during the first month of school. After the turnaround, we had only six during the first month. Attendance went from 89 to 93.5 percent. And 85 percent of our parents said they are satisfied with the transformative progress at our school. This past December, we hosted a visit for potential funders and invited parents. One parent stood up and began to weep. She remembered the days when she drove her kids to school and there would be chaos and fights. Her children didn’t want to go and they’d cry. Now her kids rush her in the morning, “We need to get to school on time.” She says it’s not the same school and she now feels privileged that her children go to Howe.

Keisha Campbell
Howe School of Excellence
Chicago Public Schools
Academy for Urban School Leaders

Submitted by Vinicius (not verified) on February 6, 2010 4:10 pm

Rod Estvan posted a critique. The most challenged kids are not looked after in charter schools.

"Yesterday strangely enough I posted on the
site information on a cohort of students with disabilities attending Sherman. These students were in grade 4 in 2007 and by 2009 when they were in grade 6 they showed zero gains in reading.

At least for this subgoup I am seeing no real improvement.

Rod Estvan

Submitted by Gustavo Martínez on February 5, 2010 2:08 pm

I found this online just today. I hope it is relevant to this discussion.

The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA issued "Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards," a nationwide report based on an analysis of Federal government data and an examination of charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, along with several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrollments of charters. The report found that charter schools continue to stratify students by race, class, and possibly language, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the country.

"President Barack Obama just delivered his budget to the U.S. Congress which increases both incentives and resources to create more charter schools," Erica Frankenberg, co-author of the report said. "This report should be considered in evaluating new federal incentives to states that encourage the expansion of charter schools, such as the Race to the Top initiative."

The study's key findings suggest that charter schools, particularly those in the western United States are havens for white re-segregation from public schools; requirements for providing essential equity data to the federal government go unmet across the nation; and magnet schools are overlooked, in spite of showing greater levels of integration and academic achievement than charters.

"The charter movement has flourished in a period of retreat on civil rights," stated UCLA Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project. "The vision of a successfully integrated society - one that carries real opportunities for historically excluded groups of students to enter the mainstream - ought to be a defining characteristic of charter schools. Federal policy should make this a condition for charter school support and should support other choice programs which pursue this goal."

The study offers several recommendations for restoring equity provisions and integration in charter schools, including establishing new guidance and reporting requirements by the Federal government; federal funding opportunities for magnet schools, which have a documented legacy of reducing racial isolation and improving student outcomes; and incorporating some features of magnet schools into charter schools. The report also recommends heightened enforcement of existing state-level legislation with specific provisions regarding diversity in charter schools, and monitoring patterns of charter school enrollment and attrition, focusing particularly on reporting the demographic information of charter school students on low-income and ELL characteristics.

“I have long admired the work of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. 
This report offers an important perspective on recent education proposals and calls on the
Department of Education to use innovation and reform to restore and advance civil rights
protections for vulnerable students and to increase diversity in our nation’s schools.  We
need the data to know where students are and how they’re doing and must continue to
reduce the barriers between students of color and high quality educational opportunities. 
Charter schools should be used as laboratories of innovation which benefit all students,
and not silos to further segregate and isolate students based on race and income," said Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA).


Download the report, "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards," by E. Frankenberg, G. Siegel-Hawley, and J. Wang

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 18, 2010 3:22 pm

I am a classroom teacher, who has taught in a voucher school, and have served as a substitute in what has been rated among the top 3 worst public school systems in the nation.

All I will say is that, as difficult as it may be to accept, given our proud history as educators and as people who have succeeded in our educational goals despite the poor and often unsupported backgrounds that we come from, the tear it down to build it up approach works.

I do not contend that it works all the time, but I think it does work in this case. There are SO MANY components that contribute to the successful matriculation of a child through a public school system that there can be no ONE solution. Economics, Family, Nutrition, and a host of other elements have been proven to have a substantial effect on the educational development of all children.

No matter how uncomfortable or politically incorrect it may be, the truth is that most parents in these areas are either uneducated themselves, or generally oblivious to what REAL and QUALITY learning is. This cannot be disputed, because their children simply record their home life, and report it at school. It does not mean that these parents don't have their childrens best interest at heart, or that they are to be considered negligent. Rather it means that while they may know what they have to do to make sure their children eat and are safe, they may not know what is best for the development of their children's brain.

I think it is unfair to all parites involved, to simply state that because they remove the entire staff, that it automatically contends those individuals were incompetent. The truth is, no rational indivdiual who is in a position to make effective educational decisions will rest simply on this occurance when making decisions about someones abilities in a classroom. These teachers may be asked about this while searching for new positions, but if they are good teachers it is easy to see and they will be recognized for their skills.

It is often left out of these reports, that part of the partnership, allows these teachers a year of professional development at their current salary. I can imagine that the teachers in this postion are at the very least, glad to have an opportunity to improve their skills, if not just to have the much needed break of the day to day classroom grind.

We have to be better as a society at not shying away from what is UNCOMFORTABLE because it doesn't now sound good in the public. We are our own worst enemy when it comes to education if we continue to sugar coat and dodge the truth. The truth will always come out in this arena, because the childrens abilities and decision making down the line will be the ultimate measuring stick.

Does it suck to have to take these measures? - Yes
Is it hard to tell a dedicated teacher they have to leave? - Definitely
Can we afford to let the same failing schools fail, just
so we can avoid being in an uncomfortable position? - I can't.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 18, 2010 8:01 pm

What makes you think it will work if Arlene couldn't manage it in Washington or San Francisco? You fail to address the fact that administrators in Philly are politically protected no matter how incompetent they are and will bully any teacher that dares to question them. Arlene's plan is to turn over a batch of schools to chartersbaggers and EMOs which hasn't worked well in the past so why will it suddenly work now? The fact is until the Philadelphia administration is forced to actually carry out their job, disciplining disruptive students, you can have the finest teachers available and nothing will change. Look at the few schools that actually have made progress and you will see that they all have one thing in common . . . they can pick who comes in their schools. Give that same priviledge to the other schools if you truly want change. Moving teachers in out of schools, in reality because of their real estate prospects not AYP scores, will accomplish only losing more teachers in a school district that has trouble already attracting good teachers. Philly has never been that attractive for most teachers and Ackerman has only made it even worse. No city would disrespect their police force they way Philly treats its teachers.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

By using this service you agree not to post material that is obscene, harassing, defamatory, or otherwise objectionable. We reserve the right to delete or remove any material deemed to be in violation of this rule, and to ban anyone who violates this rule. Please see our "Terms of Usage" for more detail concerning your obligations as a user of this service. Reader comments are limited to 500 words. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

Table of Contents

Read the latest print issue

Philly Ed Feed


Public School Notebook

699 Ranstead St.
Third Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: (215) 839-0082
Fax: (215) 238-2300

© Copyright 2013 The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. All Rights Reserved.
Terms of Usage and Privacy Policy