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How to fix America's worst schools

One school in Chicago shows the promise and pitfalls of a federal effort to turn around the nation's bottom-tier schools.

(Page 7 of 8)

It changed curricula and teaching formats, hired new principals and teachers. Yet in 2009, at the end of all the reforms, just 3 percent of the students scored at the proficient level in math, and 11 percent in English.

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"Changing that long-run history is really hard," says Robert Manwaring, a consultant who last year wrote a study on turnarounds that highlighted Markham for the think tank Education Sector .

Countless other examples exist across the country – evidence to critics that chronically poor schools rarely improve. While unions and others on the left attack the turnaround movement for laying off teachers and ignoring broader factors in poor achievement, like poverty, some on the right simply see it as throwing money after a lost cause.

Last year, a study by the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that, of 2,000 bottom-tier schools it examined in 10 states over five years, only about 1 percent truly turned around (defined by the study as climbing from the bottom 10 percent to above the state's average). A few more schools – less than 10 percent – achieved modest improvement.

"The thinking is that we have to do something, so we'll throw some money and more requirements [at the schools] and see what happens, but I don't think we should be optimistic," says Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at Fordham. "If we're honest, we'll say that nobody knows how to turn low-performing schools into high-performing schools [at a systematic level], and there is little reason to believe that this latest federal effort will change that equation."

The most typical answer to that argument is: OK, then what do we do? Just give up on failing schools and the students who attend them? Close them down? Closing schools isn't an option in many districts because no better ones exist for students to attend. Another possible solution – dispersing high-poverty, high-minority populations across the district – isn't easy either. While there's evidence it can help students academically, busing is a political and logistical nightmare.

"We're choosing between a bunch of bad options," acknowledges Mr. Petrilli.

Some argue the problem isn't that there aren't remedies for bad schools. It's that the remedies most people try aren't dramatic enough. "Many of these schools have really been focused on marginal change," says Mr. Manwaring. "As a result, they've gotten marginal changes in outcomes, if any."

To improve the chances of a turnaround, Mass Insight Education, a nonprofit group in Boston, says its research suggests several elements are important: picking the right moment to take over a school; making teachers and others connected with it reapply for their jobs; and freeing the staff from collective-bargaining agreements and restrictions on hiring, firing, and curriculum.

While those may be unpopular moves in some quarters, Justin Cohen, head of Mass Insight's School Turnaround Group, believes wholesale change offers the best chance of success. His biggest worry about the new federal push is that too many of the attempted turnarounds will fail – due in part to what he calls "light-touch" reforms.


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