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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Déjà Vu on the Whole “Turnaround” Thing?

By Rick Hess — March 30, 2011 4 min read
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For all the enthusiasm that school turnarounds are generating in some quarters, I’ve been consistently underwhelmed by the coherence or historical literacy of the would-be turnarounders. While a new bit of jargon--the term “turnaround” (can’t you just feel the power?)--and $3.5 billion in designated federal funding for School Improvement Grants is enough to push many an edu-reformer to the brink of hubris, it’s fairly clear that no one actually knows what to do. More to the point, it’s clear they’ve mostly ignored what we’ve learned from previous go-rounds.

This all came to mind yesterday while I was over at the U.S. Capitol participating in a conversation on “Avoiding Déjà Vu: Lessons from the Federal Comprehensive School Reform Program for the Current School Turnaround Agenda.” Hosted by the Knowledge Alliance and WestEd, the discussion focused on the implications of Marty Orland’s new report on the findings from WestEd’s big evaluation of the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (CSRD).

First enacted in 1998, and wrapped into No Child Left Behind, CSRD required low-performing schools to implement eleven “school reform” components in return for federal funds. The eleven entailed: proven methods and strategies, comprehensive design, professional development, measurable goals, support from staff members, support for staff members, parent and community involvement, external assistance, evaluation, coordination of resources, and scientifically based research. Good stuff, right? Thoughtful, based on careful research, backed by new funding, yada yada.

The results? Dismal. Orland reports that “the CSR program did not yield comprehensively reformed schools.” While “states receiving CSR funds largely succeeded in passing them along to those schools most in need” (whoopee!!!), at the same time, “schools receiving CSR awards made little progress in implementing...the 11 mandated components.” Astonishingly, CSR schools were actually less likely to implement the various CSR elements than were matched comparison schools.

Orland proceeds, “Given these findings, it is not surprising that receiving a CSR award was not associated with improvements in either mathematics or reading achievement. Five years after initially receiving their CSR awards, schools receiving awards did not demonstrate larger achievement growth than matched comparison schools.” Just 12 of 262 CSR schools made “significant improvements in reading and mathematics over the next two years.” Moreover, Orland reported that examining particular cases pointed to “an often chaotic and sometimes irrational environment that can thwart the sustainability of hard-won gains.”

Adding to the poignancy of Orland’s account, these findings follow nearly a decade of policymaker frustration with the disappointing track record of NCLB’s once-heralded “remedy cascade.” Public choice, supplemental services, corrective action plans, and reconstitution have all been implemented limply and to little effect. For a collection of terrific analyses on this count, check out the volume No Remedy Left Behind that Checker Finn and I edited a couple years back.

So, you might expect some lessons from these experiences to be evident in the administration’s ESEA “blueprint.” Not so much. Rather, Duncan’s much-touted “loose-tight” proposal entails jettisoning NCLB’s overdone remedy cascade for most schools in return for a more prescriptive federal role in “turning around” schools that score in the bottom five percent on tested achievement. Currently, the blueprint calls for requiring those schools to adapt one of the four School Improvement Grant turnaround models: essentially chartering them, canning the principal and doing comprehensive reform, canning the principal and half the staff, or closing the school.

Color me skeptical. There’s little reason to think that chartering these schools works, and charter operators aren’t all that eager to take them on. The SIG transformation model looks to me a whole lot like CSR or corrective models that have never racked up much success. As for the “fire half of ‘em” turnaround model, I’ll just note that firing half your employees usually isn’t a one-time solution. Most well-run outfits, private or public, don’t fire half their folks in one big bonfire, replace them, and then enjoy a miraculous transformation. Rather, weeding out mediocrity is a natural, sustained part of how they manage their team. That’s not an option here. And school closure is swell if we think there’s plenty of room at terrific schools that will welcome these kids, and if it won’t disrupt those schools. Unfortunately, most of the targeted schools aren’t in areas flush with terrific, under-capacity alternatives.

There are absolutely a bunch of awful schools out there that need to do better. Nobody needs to sell me on that. It’s nice that folks in ED are aware of that and want to do something about it. But the trick is that not every problem in the world is susceptible to a policy solution. Sometimes, there’s nothing a policymaker can do to solve a problem. When it comes to something like school improvement, something that’s a matter of practice, fidelity of implementation, and on-the-ground commitment, the frustrating fact is that federal policymakers can’t really do much. What can they do? They can provide data and transparency, research and evaluation, and political cover that permits local leaders to act, and they can scour their books to strike rules that hamstring hard-charging principals and superintendents. But that may be it. As much as federal officials would like to do more, it may well be that dramatically improving lousy schools is simply beyond the purview of folks sitting in DC office buildings, no matter how smart and well-intentioned.

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