Report: Only 1 percent of 'bad' schools turn around

An examination of poorly performing schools underlines how hard it is to turn them around.

Drew Angerer/AP
In this July 27 photo, Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks about the federal 'Race to the Top' school reform grant competition at the National Press Club in Washington. The Obama administration is investing some $3.5 billion in school-improvement grants to try to turn around America’s bad schools.

A lot of attention is being given to the idea of school “turnarounds” lately – the concept of taking a poorly performing school and drastically changing the staff, curricula, or other elements in an effort to make it much better.

But a study out Tuesday underlines just how hard it is to actually turn around a failing school.

The study, “Are Bad Schools Immortal?,” examined more than 2,000 of the worst-performing district and charter schools in 10 states over five years. It found that very few of them closed, and even fewer – about 1 percent – truly “turned around.”

“So far, [turnarounds] happen rarely and unsystematically,” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which released the study. “And nobody to my knowledge has a proven recipe for making it happen in a reliable or predictable or scalable way.... It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

That may be bad news for the Obama administration, which is investing some $3.5 billion in school-improvement grants to try to address America’s chronically bad schools. The money can be used in four ways, which include smaller steps – such as replacing the principal, adding time to the school day, and changing curricula. There are also more-drastic steps like closing a school, reopening it as a charter, or implementing a turnaround model in which most of the staff is replaced and a new principal is given increased autonomy.

But the study comes with some caveats, including the fact that those more-extreme turnaround models have only recently been getting more attention. They were tried very little in the time period (2003-2009) that the study examined.

“We haven’t actually been investing resources in this question for very long,” says Justin Cohen, president of Mass Insight Education’s School Turnaround Group in Boston. “We’ve been spending a lot of money on light-touch stuff.... I think the conclusion you should draw from this is that you need to try something dramatic.”

Some chronically poor-performing schools probably do need to be closed, Mr. Cohen acknowledges. But others, he believes, can turn around quickly if important elements are truly changed and not just tweaked. And to be successful, he says, districts can’t shy away from political lightning rods such as changing collective-bargaining agreements or the terms of employment for administrators.

“We can’t just do more of the stuff we normally do,” Cohen says. “Fixing a failing thing is fundamentally different from improving a well-oiled thing.”

Even so, Mr. Finn says, the study makes it clear that a true turnaround – in which a school improves drastically in a short period of time – is extremely hard to achieve.

Under the fairly tough standards of the report – the author looked for schools that had managed to climb from the bottom 10 percent in their state to above the average – just 1.4 percent of district schools and 0.4 percent of charter schools succeeded. A few more schools made modest improvement – defined as getting out of the bottom quartile for the state – but it was still less than 10 percent, for both district and charter schools.

Eleven percent of district schools and 19 percent of charter schools closed.

Particularly troubling about that last statistic, says report author David Stuit, is that charter schools, by design, are generally supposed to close if they can’t perform well. In general, they get a formal renewal process at least every five years.

So while the slightly higher rates of closure were expected, “it’s not much cause for celebration,” Mr. Stuit says. “Seventy-two percent remained open and remained persistently low-performing.”

The difficulty of turning around bad schools means that more of the worst ones should simply be closed, Finn says. But he also understands how hard that is to do. Parents, teachers, and kids are generally attached to their school – no matter how bad – and shutting a school down is always controversial. Even closing a charter school can be tough on kids.

Fordham is a charter authorizer for several schools in Ohio, and Finn remembers with regret one Cincinnati school that never performed well. “We realized, these kids have nowhere better to go, even though we can’t stand that school,” he says. In the end, Fordham simply walked away, telling the school to find another authorizer, rather than close it themselves. Eventually, it was shut down by the state.

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