Society and Culture, Education

Close, Don’t Try to Fix, the Worst Schools

A few days ago, the Department of Education released draft requirements for billions of dollars in grants under the School Improvement Fund. This program distributes money to all states by formula and then empowers states to distribute funds to districts with struggling low-income schools.

School “turnarounds”—efforts to fix persistently failing schools—are a top priority for this administration, and it is spending lots and lot of money on this cause. For example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants states to use a portion of state fiscal stabilization fund allocations (~$50 billion total) and Race to the Top awards ($4.35 billion total) for this purpose. The School Improvement Fund ($3.5 billion) is a separate program, a discrete stream of funding whose entire purpose is improving schools that have run afoul of performance metrics in the No Child Left Behind Act.

I’ve been arguing over the last several months that the administration’s fixation on turnarounds is a major mistake. We’ve tried to fix these deeply troubled schools for eons to no avail. Experience from other fields and industries indicates that turning around failing entities seldom works. The wiser course of action is to make persistently underperforming institutions go away and then start new institutions in their place. In education, I argue, this translates into closing the worst schools and starting new schools with the DNA for success.

Interestingly, the department’s requirements indicate its understanding that previous efforts to fix these schools have regularly failed. But rather than recognizing that this is a fundamental truth about the practice of turnarounds, it seeks to build a better mousetrap (see Ed Week’s take here).

It gives states four options for using School Improvement Grants, and I believe two will almost certainly fail to have any meaningful positive impact. While one is called the “turnaround model” and the other is called the “transformation model,” they amount to the same thing: using the same types of interventions applied over the last number of decades to try to improve struggling schools—replacing some staff, improving professional development, changing the curriculum, etc.

A third strategy, as described by the administration, is only slightly more promising. The department calls it the “restart model.” The school would be closed and then reopened by a non-district entity. While some of these groups (typically called “charter management organizations” or “educational management organizations”) have had success—and a few have had exceptional success—this is largely attributable to their strict way of doing business. When working under a strong charter school law, these groups have authority to do what’s necessary to run a great school, including having full control over hiring, firing, scheduling, curriculum, and more. Unfortunately, the department’s requirements do entirely too little to ensure these entities have the freedom they need. Yes, restarting is an essential component, but it is not enough.

The final option would have the district close the school and send its students to higher performing schools. This is a good start, but it’s only half of the equation. New schools should be started when bad schools close. Other industries don’t improve through bankruptcies and going-out-of-business sales alone. A flood of new entrants into the market is necessary as well.

The administration’s focus on failing schools is quite admirable. But attention and lots of money won’t get the results we desire if old, failed strategies are applied. Because the first two options are the least cumbersome for states and districts, these are likely to be the most used. That unfortunately suggests that we are about to embark on another ill-fated mission to improve America’s most troubled schools.

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