Special Report

Research Doesn’t Offer Much Guidance on Turnarounds

By Debra Viadero — August 04, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect figure for the amount of Race to the Top money meant to address the school turnaround problem and other federal priority issues. The correct figure is $4.35 billion.

Ever since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for turning around 5,000 of the nation’s worst-performing schools, the phone has been ringing steadily at the University of Virginia’s School Turnaround Specialist Program. Most of the calls are from educators looking for expert advice on how to go about transforming failing schools into success stories.

But if research-tested prescriptions for success are what those callers want, neither the center’s experts nor any other scholar may have much to offer. That’s because rigorous research on how to engineer the kind of dramatic transformation that Mr. Duncan is advocating is a scarce commodity, according to many scholars.

“There is both a lack of turnarounds in education and a lack of research about turnarounds,” said Bryan C. Hassel, a co-director of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C., consulting firm that has studied turnarounds in education and other fields. “And the research base for turnarounds outside of education isn’t any kind of ‘gold standard’ research base, either.” But he also maintains that the collected wisdom on the subject so far is strong enough to help schools bring about change.

The press for research-based solutions to the school turnaround problem is heightened by the promise of billions of dollars in economic-stimulus grants to states from the U.S. Department of Education to do the job. The Race to the Top program alone includes $4.35 billion meant to be used for that purpose, as well as for meeting the other goals of that program, and the federal education-spending bill is expected to include millions more in Title I school improvement grants.

But even before Secretary Duncan began offering federal dollars and making speeches highlighting the topic in June, the need for dramatic action on the school turnaround front was obvious.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to undergo restructuring when they fail to reach their academic targets for five years in a row, the list of failing schools grows annually. By the 2007-08 school year, five years into the law, more than 3,500 schools across the country were officially in some stage of restructuring.

Counting Successes

While no one is tracking how many schools at the national level have successfully emerged from restructuring, a handful of small-scale studies suggest the number is tiny, even when including the high-profile successes that Mr. Duncan has touted in Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Conn., New York City, and Philadelphia.

A Michigan case study by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, for example, found that only five of the 34 elementary and middle schools identified for restructuring in that state had left that status.

At the Virginia turnaround-specialist program, one of a handful across the country to specialize in transforming chronically low-performing schools, the track record is better. Of the 43 principal “turnaround specialists” in the program’s first three cohorts, 57 percent went to schools that have since either met their targets for adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law or achieved substantial academic gains.

Not everyone agrees, though, that research on turning around the poorest-performing schools is lacking. Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist, for one, contends that in many cases, “we have more knowledge than we actually apply.”

He and his colleagues are putting their know-how to work through an intensive strategy that builds on the Talent Development model for school improvement that was developed at Johns Hopkins, adds an early-warning system so that educators can identify students at risk of dropping out early, and enlists City Year, a Boston-based group that recruits young people for a year of full-time service, to act as mentors and tutors for the neediest students.

A one-year pilot of the model in Philadelphia resulted in a 40 percent reduction in the number of students with behavior and attendance problems. In addition, Mr. Balfanz said, half the students with failing grades were able to raise their grades. He is expanding the model in the fall to New Orleans, Chicago, and San Antonio for further testing.

Studies Ignored?

Those who see a lack of research evidence for turning around failing schools, some researchers say, are also ignoring the large body of existing research on comprehensive school reform, a strategy that makes use of off-the-shelf models for schoolwide improvement.

Reviews of studies of those whole-school improvement models have shown that, while most don’t seem to work, a handful, such as Success for All and Direct Instruction, consistently produce academic improvements over time.

“I’m distressed that this is being approached as though we know so little,” said Robert E. Slavin, Success for All’s developer. “We learned a vast amount from research on comprehensive school reform that would be of great use in turning around low-performing schools.”

In a new policy brief, the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education echoes Mr. Slavin’s view, calling on the federal government to do more to encourage whole-school reform as part of a systemic strategy for improving low-performing schools.

But a practice guide on school turnaround strategies by the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, suggests there’s a good reason to bypass that research: Whole-school improvement strategies tend to be slow and scattershot.

“School turnaround work involves quick, dramatic improvement within three years,” the guide says, “while school improvement is marked by steady, incremental improvement over a longer period of time.”

One-size-fits-all research solutions are also hard to find because winning strategies differ from school to school, experts say.

“The reason we put so much emphasis on diagnostics is that turnaround specialists have to determine what conditions led to the decline in the first place,” said Daniel L. Duke, a professor of educational leadership with the University of Virginia program.

A lack of scientific research notwithstanding, there’s no shortage of research-informed advice on how to transform chronically low-performing schools.

Experts are drawing recommendations from case studies of schools that have successfully transformed; turnarounds in other sectors of the economy, such as business; and the body of literature on schools that “beat the odds” by achieving better-than-expected results given their demographic makeups. Those sources may have a lower standard of evidence, but it’s better than no guidance at all, many scholars say.

Serious About Change

The most recent contribution to that genre of reports was the IES practice guide. Published in May, the guide represents the considered opinion of a federally appointed panel of experts on best bets for strategies practitioners can use to turn around schools stuck in a low-performing rut.

According to Rebecca Herman, a researcher from the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, or AIR, who headed the panel, the experts relied mostly on case studies to develop four cross-cutting recommendations.

Primary among them, the report says, is to “signal the need for change with strong leadership.” That could mean a public pronouncement on the urgency for change, replacing the principal, or requiring a school’s leader to take on a higher-profile role in guiding instruction, according to the report.

For example, at Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School in Philadelphia, school officials recruited Darlynn Gray, a turnaround specialist trained by the Virginia program, to act as the new principal. A charismatic figure, she immediately set to work meeting with teachers and parents, leading the students in combined morning dance sessions and academic pep rallies, and using a bullhorn to monitor students’ behavior as they walked home from school.

Philadelphia took a different approach at Pickett Charter Middle School, another successful turnaround with results documented in a case study. District officials closed the school and turned it over to Mastery Learning, a charter-management group with a reputation for a “tight” management style.

Expert opinion is nearly unanimous, though, on the importance of achieving an early, quick win, regardless of who is in charge. One famous example of that strategy from Ms. Hassel’s work: William Bratton, when he took over the New York City police department in the late 1980s, led a crackdown on minor criminals, such as the then-ubiquitous “squeegee pests” who washed the windows of cars stopped in traffic and then demanded payment. The effort helped convince skeptical New Yorkers that the police department could make a visible difference. In schools, experts say, an early, quick win might be as simple as a fresh paint job on a tired building.

The IES practice guide also calls for maintaining a focus on student learning. Typically, scholars say, turnaround schools do that by collecting data to identify and track gaps in student learning or behaviors that get in the way of learning, such as poor attendance patterns or discipline problems, so that they can be addressed strategically.

An influential 2007 report by the Boston-based Mass Insight Education and Research Institute extended recommendations to include districts and states. It called on districts to build “protective zones” in which clusters of schools, many of them partnering with charter-management organizations or other external providers, could operate free of traditional bureaucratic constraints. States, in turn, would form small, specialized units to supervise and coordinate the work of “lead” turnaround specialists in those districts.

“There’s lots of research behind what hasn’t worked, and what successful, individual urban schools look like,” said William E. Guenther, the president and founder of Mass Insight and one of the primary authors of its 2007 report. “If we simply say ‘Let’s wait for the research,’ then it will be too late.”

Meanwhile, in an effort to fill in the research gap, the Institute of Education Sciences has also launched three new research programs, all aimed at building up a “menu of practices” from which educators can choose when faced with having to revitalize a persistently low-performing school.

Under the first grant, which was awarded to the AIR last month, researchers will use student-achievement data to identify promising practices, programs, or policies from low-performing schools that turn the corner in three states: Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. The other two grants, due to be awarded next year, will underwrite a national center on scaling up effective schools and a program of research aimed at developing a framework educators can use to diagnose problems in low-performing schools.

But Mr. Hassel of Public Impact said federal education officials also should be studying the 5,000 turnaround attempts that are about to be unleashed with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package approved in February.

“That’s a huge learning opportunity, but there’s no apparatus to glean the knowledge from that experience,” he said. “We learned far too little from the No Child Left Behind experience on this.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Research Doesn’t Offer Much Guidance on Turnarounds


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