The School Turnaround Folly
Andrew Smarick is Adjunct Fellow at Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He blogs at American Enterprise Institute. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education. He also lists Chief Operating Officer for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in his credits.
According to Fundrace 2008 at Huffington Post, he donated $400 to McCain's candidate for president.
By Andrew Smarick
The Obama administrationĂ˘€™s Department of Education recently launched what I believe will become its most expensive, most lamentable, and most avoidable folly. Declaring that, Ă˘€śas a country, we all need to get into the turnaround business,Ă˘€ť Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the availability of $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants.
Years of research have clearly demonstrated that efforts to fix our most persistently failing schools seldom work. Moreover, turnarounds in other fields and industries have the same distressing track record. (This Education Next article fully discusses this matter.)
If the secretaryĂ˘€™s declaration were merely rhetorical, it would only demonstrate a lack of appreciation for the sad history of turnarounds. But itĂ˘€™s entirely more worrisome than that. During a speech at the 2009 National Charter Schools Conference, Duncan encouraged the nationĂ˘€™s best charter school operators to move away from their magnificent core competencyĂ˘€”starting new schools for disadvantaged studentsĂ˘€”and get into the turnaround business. If they unwisely take him up on the offer, the opportunity costs could be staggering.
And of course, there is the matter of money. At $3.5 billion, this grant program is mammoth, meaning we are about to spend an enormous sum of money on a line of work with a remarkable track record of failure. Exacerbating the problem, the final guidelines allow for tepid interventions (the Ă˘€śtransformationĂ˘€ť model) to qualify as a turnaround attempt. While districts could choose to pursue more radical activities, history teaches us that few will.
WhatĂ˘€™s fascinating, however, is that the final departmental documents spell out just how unsuccessful previous school improvement efforts have been. The department even takes states and districts to task for their insufficient efforts in years gone by (see Education WeekĂ˘€™s excellent summary here.) This makes the departmentĂ˘€™s permission of the weak transformation model so perplexing.
But it also brings into stark relief DuncanĂ˘€™s underlying philosophy about fixing failing schools. He seems to believe that weĂ˘€™ve failed to date because we havenĂ˘€™t tried hard enough, and that if states have all of this money and the federal governmentĂ˘€™s guidance, weĂ˘€™ll do much, much better.
I think the history of education reform and turnaround efforts in other fields refute that position. WeĂ˘€™ve tried drastic fixes of the most chronically underperforming schools before and they generally havenĂ˘€™t worked. The for-profit sector has also found that its lowest performers seldom go from the very bottom to the top. Hence my advocacy for closures and new starts.
Nevertheless, the die is cast, IĂ˘€™ve lost, and weĂ˘€™re about to pursue school turnarounds with vigor. My hope now is that the department undertakes an evaluation of this effort (like it is doing with the Race to the Top) so we can learn from this massive investment and be better positioned in the future to address the nationĂ˘€™s lowest-performing schools.
The American: Journal of American Enterprise Institute
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