Evidence Doesn’t Support Investment in School Turnaround Efforts

Education Next News Release

For Immediate Release: October 27, 2009
Andy Smarick, (443) 534-6550, asmarick@edexcellence.net

STANFORD — As the Obama administration pushes states, districts, and education organizations to embrace school “turnarounds” and prepares to spend billions of dollars in federal funds on such efforts, education researcher Andy Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute warns that the evidence strongly suggests that this policy is not the solution for the nation’s mounting number of failing schools.

“We need to begin this discussion by acknowledging that the vast majority of persistently low performing schools remain that way despite interventions,” says Smarick.  His article, “The Turnaround Fallacy,” appears in the forthcoming issue of Education Next and is now available online at www.educationnext.org.

To illustrate, Smarick points to national data on the results of No Child Left Behind-mandated school restructuring for schools that fail to meet minimum achievement targets for five years or more.  According to a report from the U.S. Department of Education, of the schools required to restructure in 2004-05, only 19 percent were able to exit improvement status two years later.

To get a perspective on the value of turnaround strategies more broadly, Smarick also looked at research from the private sector.

“Education leaders seem to believe that, outside of the world of schools, persistent failures are easily fixed,” Smarick writes. “Far from it: The limited success of turnarounds is a common theme in other fields.” He points to research by the American Enterprise Institute on the success rates of Total Quality Management (TQM) and Business Process Reengineering (BPR), the two most common approaches to organizational reform in the private sector.  Both have failed to generate the desired results two-thirds of the time or more.

If failure is also the norm for turnaround efforts in the business world, where flexibility and competitive pressure are present, Smarick argues that we should have little confidence that turnaround strategies will be successful in urban school districts, which are subject to severe political and regulatory restrictions.

A better solution is being tried by reform-minded district superintendents who are closing the lowest performing schools and making room for new school start ups and replication of high-performing charter school models that are recording impressive achievement gains.

For decades, states and districts have tried to fix their worst schools, investing incalculable resources into these efforts.  The NCLB restructuring provision provided more resources and gave districts four specific strategies to address these schools and a fifth option that allowed even more interventions.  And yet, we still have thousands of failing schools.  Now the current administration wants to invest billions more in these turnaround efforts.

Instead, Smarick argues that the charter model ought to be applied as a solution.  Schools that fail to live up to expectations should be closed, new schools should be started in their place, and the best schools should be expanded and replicated.

“Our relentless preoccupation with improving the worst schools actually inhibits the development of a healthy urban public-education industry,” Smarick says.

ReadThe Turnaround Fallacy” available online at www.educationnext.org.

Watch Education Next’s video interview with Andy Smarick, “Should failing schools be fixed or closed?

Andy Smarick is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Caleb Offley (585) 319-4541
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6010

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