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Are School "Turnarounds" Just Spin?

Posted by Jim Stergios  February 22, 2012 10:23 AM

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The waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act will, as noted yesterday, have a number of effects, with three big ones being:

  • It moves the goalposts for accountability back years (at least 2017, more likely 2024) and weakens the accountability goal (from proficiency for all students to making progress on the achievement gap)
  • It gets rid of all of the law's school choice and parental options, which were to kick in after a number of years of continued school failure
  • It centralizes innovation and change strategies in Malden (the world HQ of the state department of education)

The first effect listed above is a simple punt on accountability. But the last two bullets mark a move away from empowering parents and reinvigoration of the state's education bureaucracy. It also lots of questions:

If parents are not empowered in the process, where will accountability come from? After all, if the state is the great innovator and also the keeper of accountability (the accountability office now directly reports to the education commissioner), why would the bureaucracy feel any pressure? They define the terms of the debate and the solutions.

There is also the question about whether central bureaucracies can ever really "innovate." Innovation comes from competition and new ideas that often take on conventional wisdom. Digital was unable to innovate from the inside and therefore it was replaced by other computer companies, etc. There is a lot written on the topic, and I guess the educrats are too busy to look at such research.

US Secretary Arne Duncan has ignored this as well, considering DC as the driver of innovation in the states, on standards, testing, instructional practice, curricula, and teacher evaluations. He has staked his claim to be an innovator on his work in Chicago, when he was Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools.

And for the most part, he and the state education bureaucracies who are working with him, have advanced the view that they can "turn around" schools and districts from central offices. I've noted the research on the absolute paucity of successful turnarounds before, but if thought it is worth sharing recent research that is focused on Duncan's own home town and its record with school turnarounds:

One day before Chicago School Board members vote on whether to “turn around” a record number of flagging schools, a new study emerged Tuesday that dumped on the results of the city’s major turnaround vendor.

About 33 neighborhood schools with at least 95 percent low-income students not only outscored equally poor schools cleared out of all staff and “turned around’’ by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, but even beat the city test score average, the study by Designs for Change indicated.

And the neighborhood schools did so without the average $7 million per school in funds and facility improvements over five years given the typical AUSL school — and with far less teacher turnover, the study said.

As the Chicago Sun-Times notes:

The analysis ranked 210 city neighborhood schools with at least 95 percent low-income students, based on the percent of students passing their 2011 state reading tests. It found that AUSL placed only three schools among the top 100 — Howe (53rd), Morton (84th) and Johnson (88th). AUSL’s lowest scorer was Bethune, at 199th. Two CPS-run turnaround schools — Langford and Fulton — came in 150 and 206th, respectively.

Often, the study found, neighborhood schools outperformed equally-poor AUSL turnaround schools located only a few miles away. For example, in the South Shore neighborhood, Powell came in No. 14, while AUSL’s Bradwell was No. 194.

Massachusetts will see in Lawrence Public Schools if somehow we will prove the exception and find a way to get the schools there on a strong path toward improvement. The state has taken over the schools in Lawrence and is crafting a central plan for lots of turnaround activity. Will it work? I really hope so, but given the data so far, and there's lots of it, the turnaround supporters frankly are just spewing a lot of spin.

It would be far smarter for the state to give parents more charter options, create an additional vocational-technical schools that operates autonomous of the district structure, and interdistrict choice options.

Funny how empowering parents has, unlike turnaround strategies, a very good empirical record.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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