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The Turnaround Myth: Failing schools are best shut down

The Wall Street Journal editorial department never lets facts get in the way. Kissing cousins to the New York Times editorials on education.


Like its predecessor, the Obama Administration is focusing its education policy on fixing failed schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls for a "dramatic overhaul" of "dropout factories, where 50, 60, 70 percent of students" don't graduate. The intentions are good, but a new study shows that school turnarounds have a dismal record that doesn't warrant more reform effort.

"Much of the rhetoric on turnarounds is pie in the sky—more wishful thinking than a realistic assessment of what school reform can actually accomplish," writes Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. "It can be done but the odds are daunting" and "examples of large-scale, system-wide turnarounds are nonexistent."

Mr. Loveless looked at 1,100 schools in California and compared test scores from 1989 and 2009. "Of schools in the bottom quartile in 1989—the state's lowest performers—nearly two-thirds (63.4 percent) scored in the bottom quartile again in 2009," he writes. "The odds of a bottom quartile school's rising to the top quartile were about one in seventy (1.4 percent)." Of schools in the bottom 10% in 1989, only 3.5% reached the state average after 20 years.

Conversely, the best schools tended to remain that way. Sixty-three percent of the top performers in 1989 were still at the top in 2009, while only 2.4% had fallen to the bottom. School achievement, or lack thereof, is remarkably persistent, and California's worst schools were all the subject of numerous reform attempts in "finance, governance, curriculum, instruction, and assessment," writes Mr. Loveless, a former California public school teacher.

Similar interventions in Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio and elsewhere had similar poor results. Mr. Loveless says the reasons for this consistency need further study, though he suspects the answer may lie in a school's culture—its education DNA.

In any event, the reasonable conclusion is that children would be better served by closing these schools and starting new ones. In a recent article for Education Next magazine, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute notes that the most successful urban school models are run by charter organizations--KIPP, Achievement First, Aspire—that specialize in starting new schools.

The Obama Administration is nonetheless doubling down on turnaround strategies. Last year's stimulus bill increased the federal school improvement grant fund by $3 billion, and the 2010 budget calls for $1.5 billion more. Teachers unions, school boards and others in the education establishment object to closing even the worst schools, citing the loss of jobs. Teachers unions also worry that they won't be able to organize replacement charter schools, many of which don't operate under collective bargaining agreements.

The good news is that some bad schools are closing under the direction of reform-minded officials in some cities. New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has closed around 100 schools and opened more than 300 new ones. Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are attempting to follow suit.

The President and Mr. Duncan talk about being "data driven" and "following the evidence." In this case, the evidence argues against throwing billions more at turnaround schemes that fail as consistently as the schools they target.

— Editorial
Wall Street Journal


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