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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.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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.

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."