Society and Culture, Education

The Turnaround Fallacy

Education Next released my article “The Turnaround Fallacy,” which argues for an alternative to the education reform world’s current fixation on “turnarounds.”

In short, I make the case that turnarounds of long-failing schools have consistently failed for decades. Moreover, the research shows turnarounds seldom work in other fields and industries. Understanding this, those other fields and industries have developed sensible mechanisms for dealing with their lowest performers, be it liquidation, disbarment, loss of license, etc.

The equivalent in education would be school closures. This would not only bring an end to schools that have poorly served needy kids year after year (and are likely to do so into the future), it would set in motion a series of other practices that would help us finally build healthy urban school systems.

It is important to note that this is much more than a philosophical debate. Real lives and staggering sums of money—particularly American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds—are at stake in the very near future. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been touting turnarounds since his first days in office. The stimulus legislation provided $3 billion for “School Improvement Grants,” dollars that could be used in a number of ways to deal with failing schools but that the administration wants to use for turnarounds.

Other stimulus programs, such as the $50 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and the $4.35 billion Race to the Top, are certain to be used in part to pursue turnarounds. And, possibly of most importance, Secretary Duncan is urging the nation’s best education reform organizations to get involved in turnarounds.

Through the Stimulus Watch series (here and here), I’ve been arguing that much of the ARRA funding allocated for schools has been supporting blatantly non-reform activities. Turnarounds appear to be reform-oriented—that’s how they are being billed—but in fact they amount to the same types of interventions applied to struggling schools for eons.

I admire and congratulate Secretary Duncan for shining a bright light on the nation’s lowest-performing schools and seeking to do something about them. But turnarounds are not the answer; if we go down this road, we could squander billions of ARRA dollars and incalculable sums of precious human capital.

If you want to learn more about why turnarounds don’t work in education or elsewhere and how our K-12 system can make use of the lessons of other fields and industries, give “The Turnaround Fallacy” a read.

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