Education Opinion

School Closure and Other Turnaround Strategies

By Michelle Rhee — May 22, 2014 6 min read
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Michelle and Jack continue their conversation about interventions for struggling schools—addressing strategies like school closure and restructuring.

Schneider: You ended our last conversation by asking if I think schools should bring all resources to the table, whether or not those parties are external. I do. And I’ll add James Comer’s School Development Program as an example of a very powerful third-party provider. But high quality external providers are few and far between. And the good ones don’t have the capacity to work with a lot of schools at a time.

So you’re right that such partnerships can sometimes be fruitful. My critique, however, is with the line of thinking that presupposes external providers to be somehow inherently capable. I think the opposite is true, given the importance of context—something research bears out.

Interestingly enough, I think the importance of context should also lead us to question the efficacy of huge districts like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Obviously size isn’t everything, but those massive districts are a product of historical happenstance rather than intentional design. And as research bears out, many of the most compelling theoretical arguments for large districts—like economies of scale—don’t actually prove to be true.

Rhee: So it sounds like here’s what we agree on:

1) There are failing schools that need help and support to get better;

2) that process is hard, long and resource-intensive;

3) Ideally districts would be able to do this effectively but we acknowledge that’s not always the case;

4) When it’s not we should be willing to look to external partners to help;

5) There are not nearly the number of high quality partners out there that we need.

Schneider: That makes sense. It’s important to point out, however, that this isn’t what we usually hear about troubled schools.

So often the messaging is that troubled schools should be closed down, or that they should be turned over to charter operators, or that they will benefit from major turnover in staff. But those solutions don’t address the core problems that can overwhelm schools.

As you acknowledge, the process of school improvement is lengthy, challenging, and resource-intensive. But that’s rarely the mantra of the reform movement. I’d like to see reformers making longer-term plans, recognizing a greater degree of complexity, and talking about real investment—not in silver bullets, but in building capacity.

Rhee: I don’t think you’re giving reformers a fair shake. Saying that reformers only believe in quick fixes, closing schools and charters isn’t accurate.

People would probably say that about me, for example. I closed some schools in DC and brought some external partners in for others. However, we also built capacity internally to help still others. I believed in trying multiple strategies including building district capacity but I’m pretty sure people would say I only believe in the “silver bullets.”

Schneider: Remember that a part of what we’re trying to do is wade through policy rhetoric.

I think it’s hard to deny that a lot of messaging about struggling schools is deeply problematic. When the message is “restructure schools with low scores and turn them over to charter operators,” there’s going to be a lot of resistance to intervention of any kind. And such messaging also draws attention away from more complex strategies that might address core problems.

Part of the problem here is the nebulous concept of a “reformer.” Because the truth is that we’re all reformers in one way or another. We just have different visions, beliefs, and strategies. I have no bone to pick with those seeking to improve schools. In fact, I like to think that I’m a person who’s working toward that aim, as well.

What I’m trying to point out, however, is that there are some really worrying messages out there about how to fix schools. Those messages affect policy decisions. And perhaps worse, they incite a backlash that gets us fighting rather than talking.

So, I’m wondering if we can agree on a few things. First, that shutting schools down is a truly horrible option that should only be used rarely and judiciously, rather than as a strategy. Similarly, I’m wondering if we can agree that turning schools over to charter operators is generally an ineffective strategy—one that will sometimes produce results, but often not, and that can further destabilize local schools. And finally, I’m wondering if we can agree that if state and local leaders want to see schools improve, they need to channel their energies into building robust districts that can build capacity among teachers and administrators.

Rhee: On school closures we have to look at the realities districts face. When you have severely under-enrolled schools it doesn’t make sense to keep them all open because if you right-size, then each school will have better resources instead of the district paying to operate a half empty building. It spreads the resources too thin so sometimes school closures make good sense.

On turning schools over to charter operators I don’t think it’s right to say it’s an ineffective strategy. Compared to what? I’ve seen some work beautifully and others not so much. Instead of saying “this doesn’t work” I’d rather look to what makes the successful ones successful and vice versa.

I’m totally willing to agree with your last statement, but not to the exclusion of looking for opportunities to bring external resources to bear when appropriate.

Schneider: I’m not opposed to thinking strategically about building usage, though I will say that the projected financial savings in shutting down schools often isn’t realized. What I am opposed to, however, is closing schools as a turnaround strategy—as it has been used in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities.

Additionally, I’m not saying that charter schools don’t work. Some do. Some don’t. My point is that as a strategy—a general policy move designed to produce a particular set of results—it’s not particularly effective, and data bears that out.

What strategies will work to turn around schools? Building school and district capacity is one approach. And for what it’s worth, I don’t disagree with you that, when appropriate, capacity-building should include external partners. But again, I wouldn’t advocate for that as a default approach.

Another approach, which I think has to be a part of the equation, is ensuring that all schools have a diverse mix of kids. Because too many schools serve exclusively high-needs students. And I’m not talking here about low-income kids with highly engaged parents, because there are lots of schools with self-selecting student bodies producing impressive results. I mean schools that are overwhelmed by the challenges presented by extreme racial and economic segregation. Such schools just can’t give each kid all of the attention that he or she needs.

That’s a tougher nut to crack, particularly given the repeated Supreme Court decisions over the past several decades that have thwarted efforts to create metropolitan districts or to use race as a factor in placing kids. And of course parents are going to want to have a say in where their kids go to school. But there are some interesting ideas out there. Richard Kahlenberg, for instance, has proposed turning failing schools into magnet schools as a way of attracting more diverse student bodies and spreading out the students with the highest levels of need.

Rhee: I like the idea of potentially turning failing schools into magnet schools. Despite the fact that it’s not a proven strategy, it sounds worthwhile to try something like that.

I guess what I’m saying is that when a troubled district is faced with a group of chronically failing schools they can and should be willing to approach it with an open mind.

Maybe they work in partnership with a proven CMO on some portion of them. With another group they might try the Kahlenberg approach. And with yet others they’d bring new leaders into or work with the local union on a turnaround strategy.

My point is I think we should allow and encourage districts to take that approach.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.