NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Only 1 Percent of "Bad" Schools Turn Around

December 28, 2010

A lot of attention is being given to the idea of school "turnarounds" lately -- the concept of taking a poorly performing school and drastically changing the staff, curricula, or other elements in an effort to make it much better.  But a new study underlines just how hard it is to actually turn around a failing school.

  • The study examined more than 2,000 of the worst performing district and charter schools in 10 states over five years.
  • It found that very few of them closed, and even fewer -- about 1 percent -- truly "turned around."

That may be bad news for the Obama administration, which is investing some $3.5 billion in school-improvement grants to try to address America's chronically bad schools. 

But the study comes with some caveats, including the fact that those more extreme turnaround models have only recently been getting more attention.  They were tried very little in the time period (2003-2009) that the study examined.

"We haven't actually been investing resources in this question for very long," says Justin Cohen, president of Mass Insight Education's School Turnaround Group in Boston. "We've been spending a lot of money on light-touch stuff.... I think the conclusion you should draw from this is that you need to try something dramatic."

Some chronically poor-performing schools probably do need to be closed, Mr. Cohen acknowledges.  But others, he believes, can turn around quickly if important elements are truly changed and not just tweaked.  And to be successful, he says, districts can't shy away from political lightning rods such as changing collective-bargaining agreements or the terms of employment for administrators.

Source:  Amanda Paulson, "Only 1 Percent of 'Bad' Schools Turn Around," Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 2010.

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