Last Word on School Turnarounds?

In its Winter 2010 issue, Ed Next published my article, “The Turnaround Fallacy.” The subtitle was “Stop trying to fix failing schools. Close them and start fresh.”

Several letters to the editor were received by the magazine in response to the article, and even more comments were posted on the Ed Next website.

I appreciate the careful reading of and thoughtful responses to the “Turnaround Fallacy” by those who have written, not only the letter-writers (Feinstein, Cohen, Hawley Miles, and the Hassels), but also the many others who have contacted me since its publication.  It’s encouraging that so many talented and energetic people are working to improve the opportunities available to kids assigned to troubled public schools.

But I’m as convinced as ever that closing schools in a persistent state of failure is necessary.  Rather than restate that case (which you can also watch me argue during this Fordham/Education Next event on school turnarounds), I’ll just respond to the most frequent comments I’ve received.

First, readers have often made the case that we haven’t really tried turnarounds yet.  I tried to address that contention in the original article by giving lots and lots of examples of the things we have tried and by citing the research showing that, despite all of that, we still don’t know what would work better.  Some seem to think that decades of past failure suggest a lack of effort or smarts—that we just need to be tougher and more thorough.  I think it speaks to a much broader theme, which I argued in the article: that turnarounds seldom work in any field.

Accordingly, my prediction is that that vast majority of “turnaround” efforts funded by the $3.5 billion federal School Improvement Grant program and the $4.35 billion Race to the Top will look much like previous efforts, and therefore most will fail.  For those interventions that are “stronger” (which each turnaround advocate seems to define as the strategy he or she prefers), the success rates will be similarly low.

Second, I have never made the case that all new starts will work; in fact, I concede that many won’t.  But as I point out, the best urban schools in operation today are either schools that were started new or have long been excellent.  Indeed, I struggle to find schools that were once in a chronic state of tragic underperformance and are now consistently generating exceptional results.  Moreover, as the last third of the article argues, continuous new starts are essential to the healthy functioning of a system.

To those who say that we don’t have the capacity to grow enough new schools, I say that’s because we have a system that was mistakenly built a century ago to populate schools by geography, to keep schools open in perpetuity, to homogenize offerings, and to own and operate all public schools in a designated area.  That “one best system,” which Ravitch and Viteritti aptly called the “decrepit factory” a decade ago, has failed us in countless ways and most assuredly is not suited to do what is needed going forward.  We need to build a system that will enable new starts to be more frequent and robust—a system that seeds new school development organizations, builds human capital, equitably distributes operational funding and facilities, and more.

Finally, some say that we can’t close all low-performing schools because there are too many.  First, that’s a chilling indictment of the current system and our generations of attempted turnaround efforts.  Second, neither I nor anyone I know would argue that all failing schools must be closed tomorrow.  The operational challenge is figuring out how to time and choreograph the closure of these schools, the replication and expansion of superior schools, and the starting of promising new schools.  This is the ultimate task of the leader of the urban school system of the future: properly managing a city’s portfolio of schools.  No one has the perfect playbook yet, but I’m extremely encouraged by the efforts of Joel Klein’s team in New York City.

In closing, I’d simply say that if we want dynamic, responsive, high-quality, and self-improving systems of urban schools, we need to stop stubbornly preserving the failed schools of yesterday and get about the business of building mechanisms that continuously introduce new offerings, grow successes, and phase out schools that don’t work for kids.

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