Education Opinion

School Turnarounds Are Predictably Rare

By Walt Gardner — February 15, 2013 3 min read
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Reports about how schools that were once execrable have been transformed always make headlines. They provide hope at a time when despair prevails about the future of public education in this country. The latest example is an op-ed that details the metamorphosis of schools in Union City, N.J. (“The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools,” The New York Times, Feb. 10).

According to David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, what transpired in a poor community where three-fourths of students live in Spanish-speaking homes provides a model for nationwide reform. Kirp describes the strategies that resulted in a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent, which is about 10 percentage points greater than the national average. If that were not impressive enough, 75 percent enroll in college, with the best students earning scholarships to the Ivies. As a result, U.S. News & World Report and the American Institutes for Research ranked Union City High School in the top 22 percent.

These are indeed amazing accomplishments. I can understand why Kirp is so taken with what he has seen. But at the same time, I think he overstates the possibilities for national school reform. Union City is not alone in being held up as an example. In It’s Being Done (Harvard Education Press, 2007) and in How’s It’s Being Done (Harvard Education Press, 2009), Karen Chenoweth provided similar concrete illustrations. These miracle schools are known collectively as high-flying schools. The ingredients for their success are strong leadership, extraordinary teachers, engaged parents and high expectations. In other words, if these schools can post the results they do by following the recipe, then why can’t all schools do the same?

It’s a question that has been on my mind for as long as I’ve been writing about education. I’m constantly asked it when people know that I was a teacher for 28 years. When I try to explain that what works in some schools does not necessarily work in other schools, they say I’m making excuses. But let’s remember that Arne Duncan has identified 5,000 high poverty schools in the U.S. that have little hope of ever meeting even minimal proficiency levels. What is the likelihood that they can be like Union City? I’m not arguing that poor students can’t learn. Of course they can. But there are so many factors outside of school that stand as obstacles. Just because a handful of schools manages to overcome such obstacles does not mean they possess a silver bullet. That’s the scalability side of the story.

Then there’s the sustainability side. Whenever I read accounts about schools beating the odds, I want to know how long they’ve been doing so. Don’t forget the burnout factor, or what is also known as compassion fatigue. The demands made on teachers in schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged students eventually extract a price. They’ve been trained to teach - not to be miracle workers. Sooner or later, therefore, something has to give. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently reported that schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are “disproportionately exposed to teacher absence.” That’s why I believe it’s far too soon to draw definitive conclusions about policy, as Kirp has.

Nothing I’ve said is intended to disparage the success of high-flying schools. We can’t wait until the childhood poverty rate in this country is reduced to next to zero before undertaking steps to reform schools. But at the same time, we should be far more skeptical about what reformers say can be accomplished. That’s why I call this column Reality Check - not Fantasy Enhancement.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.