Nationally, no verdict yet on turnarounds
With federal support, many districts are investing, but there is little evidence yet of success on a large scale.
by Dale Mezzacappa and Katrina Morrison
School turnaround is about the need to make drastic changes and achieve dramatic improvements in chronically low-performing schools. The approach has been championed by the Obama administration, which over the past three years has awarded $3.5 billion in grants to schools willing to adopt one of four models:
Turnaround: Replace the principal and no less than 50 percent of the staff, and adopt increased learning time and instructional reforms;
Restart: Convert a school to a charter or close and reopen it as a charter or under the management of an outside organization;
Transformation: Replace the principal and implement increased learning time and instructional reforms;
Closure: Shut the school and reassign students to higher-achieving district schools.
Philadelphia has embraced the concept and adopted three of the models – Empowerment Schools (transformation), Promise Academies (turnaround), and Renaissance charters (restart). This year, its efforts earned it more than $17 million in federal aid for 27 schools.
Other cities including Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New York are heavily invested in various turnaround initiatives.
In Chicago Public Schools, which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once headed, the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL) began as an effort to train teachers differently through year-long residencies and morphed into a full-fledged school manager. In Los Angeles, turnaround started with a District-corporate partnership.
While there are scattered examples of remarkable school transformations, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said that policymakers know very little about the potential of turnaround to work on a large scale.
Asked how we know whether one or more of these strategies work, Hess said, "There's really no evidence, but nobody knows what else to do." He added, "It's not like it's a new idea. We've been trying to make bad schools better for half a century."
The new twist is the heavy reliance on outsourcing management to private organizations, like charters. And its roots are in a corporate notion of replacing personnel as a way to transform a failing business through such concepts as "corporate re-engineering."
But schools are different organizations from profit-oriented businesses, Hess noted, adding that even in corporations where it is possible to hire and fire at will, the "turnaround" success rate is 30 or 35 percent.
But the notion is attractive because of a belief that it is unconscionable to tolerate the status quo in schools where proficiency rates are low, dropout rates are high, and students are ill-prepared for the future.
"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.