The turnaround fallacy

A remarkable and contrarian essay (and video) in Education Next by Andy Smarick which addresses the current federal and district fascination with school turnarounds and makes a fairly persuasive historical point: they usually don’t work.

For as long as there have been struggling schools in America’s cities, there have been efforts to turn them around. The lure of dramatic improvement runs through Morgan Freeman’s big-screen portrayal of bat-wielding principal Joe Clark, philanthropic initiatives like the Gates Foundation’s “small schools” project, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB)’s restructuring mandate. The Obama administration hopes to extend this thread even further, making school turnarounds a top priority.

But overall, school turnaround efforts have consistently fallen far short of hopes and expectations. Quite simply, turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America’s troubled urban school systems.

As Smarick notes, schools are insulated from much of the healthy pressure which impacts most other institutions – private, government, and non-profit alike:

We shouldn’t be surprised then that turnarounds in urban education have largely failed. The surprise and shame is that urban public education, unlike nearly every other industry, profession, and field, has never developed a sensible solution to its continuous failures. After undergoing improvement efforts, a struggling private firm that continues to lose money will close, get taken over, or go bankrupt. Unfit elected officials are voted out of office. The worst lawyers can be disbarred, and the most negligent doctors can lose their licenses. Urban school districts, at long last, need an equivalent. […]

Those hesitant about replacing turnarounds with closures should simply remember that a failed business doesn’t indict capitalism and an unseated incumbent doesn’t indict democracy. Though temporarily painful, both are essential mechanisms for maintaining long-term systemwide quality, responsiveness, and innovation. Closing America’s worst urban schools doesn’t indict public education nor does it suggest a lack of commitment to disadvantaged students. On the contrary, it reflects our insistence on finally taking the steps necessary to build city school systems that work for the boys and girls most in need.

The difficulty is that when turnaround efforts fail, the usual claim is of neglect: not enough money, time, people or planning.  The failure is then seen as a failure of reform. This essay posits the possibility that failure of a turnaround program may correctly be that they do not go far enough.

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