Thompson: Turnarounds as Snake Oil
The Brookings Institute's Tom Loveless argues that "much of the rhetoric on turnarounds is pie in the sky." His study "suggests that people who say we know how to make failing schools into successful schools but merely lack the will to do so are selling snake oil ... Examples of large scale, system-wide turnarounds are nonexistent."
Loveless reports that "the statistics are eye-popping and, in a way depressing. School achievement appears astonishingly persistent. Nearly two thirds of low-performing schools in 1989 are still low performers two decades later." Although about 1/3rd of the schools he studied showed improvement, the chances of one of those low-performing schools becoming a high-performing school are "less than one out of seventy."
So what's the lesson from Loveless' findings? A little more caution -- but not inaction, either.
Nothing in Loveless' study needs to reflect badly upon serious turnaround specialists such as those at Mass Insight. In fact, Loveless echoes their findings when he identifies "the institutional DNA of schools handed down from decade to decade" as a cause for pessimism. We are a rich enough country to gamble a few billion dollars on turnaround experiments. I want my union to take risks and renegotiate many contractual provisions in order to help create the dramatic changes that may help break the cycle of failure. But I would not compromise too much on basic principles, such as due process and the professional autonomy of teachers, on the chance that largescale turnarounds are possible.
Just in time for the discussion of the latest NAEP report on stagnating Reading scores, Loveless also explains why curricular reforms improved NAEP Math scores. In 1990, 81% of 4th grade math teachers said they placed little or no emphasis on algebra. By 2009, that number had dropped to 7%. That sort of consciousness-raising is not enough to incease reading comrehension which is the key to turnarounds for secondary schools, but it shows the value of professional development in providing incremental improvements.
So, I wouldn't bet the farm on more than a few dozen turnaround experiments, and I would heed the advice that Robert Manwaring offered for Secretary Duncan's ESEA Blueprint, "the stakes are high, and a rush job will do more damage than good. The federal government should create the space for schools and districts to take their time and get it right."
In creating that space, I would listen both to Loveless's observation on curricular and instructional improvements but also the wisdom of The Turnaround Challenge that instructional and curricular reforms are inherently inadequate for addressing the complex ecosystems of the lowest-performing schools. After laying the foundations for turnarounds at scale, and after learning from that process, perhaps we could then tackle a thousand turnarounds at a time.