NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Turning Around Low-Performing Schools

February 16, 2012

Scrutiny and criticism of the education system has increasingly targeted low-performing schools, primarily in urban areas, that detractors charge are failing to serve students and handicapping their future opportunities.  In response, various administrations in the Department of Education have introduced initiatives and grant-backed programs to reform these schools and improve education outcomes, say researchers with the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The city of Chicago has been one of the most active participants in these programs, seeking to turn around its subpar schools at all levels.  It has been involved in three different reform models affecting 36 schools between 1997 and 2009.

  • The "transformational model" changes school leadership (notably, the principal) and helps them to specialize in reversing the direction of a school's momentum.
  • The "turnaround model" changes school leadership, alters the governance structure, and replaces at least 50 percent of the school's staff.
  • The "closure and restart model" shuts down a school for a year or two, transferring the students to other schools, and is subsequently reopened as an application-only charter school.

Each of the 36 schools examined participated in a program that was classified into one of each of the three models -- a decision that was made based on the characteristics of the school and its perceived needs.  A comparison of the schools before the implementation of reform and their vital statistics several years down the road allows for analysis of the efficacy of the programs.

  • On average, Chicago elementary and middle schools that underwent reform made significant improvements in reading, closing the gap between those schools and the system average by almost half.
  • Those same schools also closed the gap in math achievement by two-thirds.
  • Achievement among high schools was not as significant -- there were not significant improvements in attendance rates or in the percentage of ninth-graders that were "on-track" to graduate.

Researchers emphasize that, especially among the high schools, earlier attempts at reform in the mid-1990s were found to be ineffective and were subsequently paired with additional reform.  But this trial-and-error process depressed the schools' perceived level of achievement.  Later attempts at reform appear much more promising in terms of turning these schools around.

Source: Marisa de la Torre et al., "Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago," University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, February 2012.

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