Federal Opinion

Getting Real About Turnarounds

By Diane Ravitch — February 07, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

One of the signature issues of the Obama administration’s education reform strategy is “turning around” low-performing schools. We have been led to believe that schools with low test scores can be dramatically changed by firing the principal, replacing half or all the staff, closing the school or turning the school over to private management.

Part of the corporate reformers’ message is that turning around a school may be painful but that it can produce transformational results, such as a graduation rate of 100 percent or a startling rise in test scores. The turnaround approach assumes that it is bad principals and bad teachers who stand in the way of school improvement. Any mention of poverty or other social and economic conditions that might affect students’ motivation and academic performance is dismissed as excuse-making by the proponents of “No Excuses.”

Today there is a burgeoning industry of private-sector consultants devoted to “turnarounds.” One of the leading turnaround specialists is a company called Mass Insight. I recently received an email in which Mass Insight hailed several schools that had turned around. The stories seemed too good to be true.

So I turned to Gary Rubinstein, my favorite pedagogical detective, and asked him to investigate each of these schools. Gary did, and the results are on his blog. This is a short and fascinating read. Like the miracle schools about which I have written on this blog and elsewhere, the turnaround schools turn out to be less impressive than the hype.

As Gary Rubinstein writes, one of the supposed turnround schools “got rid of 70 percent of their staff. ...Their math scores shot up from 4 percent to 14 percent in just two years!...but then went back down to 10 percent. And this is despite the fact that their demographics changed drastically, leaving them with a much ‘easier’ group of kids. Title I went from 97 percent down to 75 percent.[English-language learners] went from 13 percent down to 4 percent.”

Fortunately, Gary is not the only one who has figured out the games that politicians play. Matt Farmer, whom I don’t know, wrote astunning expose of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to sell Collins Academy as a turnaround triumph.

After Arne Duncan closed Collins in 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped over $1 million into turning around the school. When Mayor Emanuel spoke at its graduation ceremonies in 2011, he congratulated the school for its graduation rate of 100 percent and the fact that nearly all were college-bound.

But Matt Farmer inconveniently pointed out that the test scores of Collins students were lower in 2011 than in 2006, when the school was closed down. Only 15 percent of the students met state standards in reading and math, and the school was officially classified as “level 3,” on academic probation. Other schools have been closed for this kind of poor performance. To ease this embarrassment, school officials moved Collins to “level 2,” making it a school in good standing, despite its poor scores. But on the most recent state tests, only 14.9 percent of the students met state standards in reading and 6.8 percent in math. Some turnaround.

I am happy to report, however, that turnarounds are possible. Researchers at the American Institutes for Research scoured the state of Californiato find low-performing schools that had achieved real and sustained improvement. The AIR researchers did something remarkable: They started with a clear definition: A turnaround was one that began with three years of low performance (bottom third in the state); that showed a specified level of growth over three years for all subgroups; that sustained its improvement into a fourth year; that improved relative to other schools in the state; and whose student population remained demographically similar over time.

The researchers identified 2,407 schools in the bottom third of the state rankings. Only 44 schools, or 2 percent of these schools, met their criteria. Few of these schools made “dramatic” progress; typically, it was “slow and steady.” The successful schools described the elements that contributed to their improvement: instructional strategies focused on subgroups that need extra help; professional development; teacher collaboration; instructional leadership; wise use of data; district support; and parent involvement.

Why does the media swallow the tall tales of turnaround specialists? Why do politicians and big foundations promote wildly inflated claims of success? Why don’t they recognize how hard it is to achieve reasonable goals? Why are they so eager to persuade the public that a school can “turnaround” in two or three years by firing the staff and starting over? The hyperbole of politicians, policymakers, and foundation leaders serves only to undermine confidence in public education and set the stage for privatization. There is no evidence that their slash-and-burn tactics improve the education of American students.


P.S. Here is yet another example of the hyping of turnarounds in Chicago: “School reform organization gets average grades.”

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.