The Failure and Hope of the Urban Turnaround School

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 7, 2016

Turnaround Efforts from 2009 to Today

President Obama took on an ambitious experiment in 2009. Using $3 billion in stimulus money, the federal government awarded School Improvement Grants (SIGs) to 5000 of the lowest performing urban schools committed to turning around their poor performance. Upon accepting the grants, schools agreed to adhere to one of four turnaround models: Becoming a charter school; closing the school and sending students elsewhere; replacing the principal and all staff; or replacing the principal and overhauling teacher evaluations. 75% of the schools chose the final option.

After nearly six years, the turnaround model is largely considered a failure. 2/3 of the schools that received the federal dollars saw modest or no gains in test scores when compared to schools with no grant money at all. 1/3 saw drops in student achievement. Some schools, however, did experience an increase in students who are on track to graduate. With such a large amount of money allocated to an effort that has seen minimal results, Researchers and policymakers have begun to investigate why these efforts failed so universally.

Photo courtesy of Pierre Lognoul

Photo courtesy of Pierre Lognoul

Systemic Challenges, Short-Term Solutions

Due to the complex nature of the challenges urban schools face, the reasons for schools difficulties with widespread improvement are numerous. First, as in Chicago, political turmoil and pushback from the union inhibited some progress. The short life of the grants also impeded schools’ progress. Many argue that three years is not enough time to truly overhaul a school’s culture and curriculum for the better. These schools are constantly engaged in new attempts to improve their outcomes. This disrupts any potential for stability and steady progress.

Another key problem was a lack of expertise among the administrators charged with turning schools around. The bureaucrats and educators engaged in the turnaround process were not experts in school reform, and the capacity to carry out their ideas was often deficient. Additionally, the Competition for the grants between schools was intended to motivate educators to produce quality plans. However, this competition may have diverted resources away from plan development toward campaigning for plans to win.

Finally, Strunk and Marsh (2015) found that greater attention was given to supporting plan development rather than plan implementation. Once selected, plans did not always guide school actions in the early implementation years. Sometimes teachers and leaders in turnaround schools were “barely aware of plan content.”

New Approaches to Neighborhood School Improvement

While this expensive experiment is largely considered a disappointment when measured by achievement on test scores, policymakers and administrators have learned about what creates improvement and what does not. It is clear that more social workers, parent engagement, and instructional time appeared to increase a school’s probability of improvement.

In its future iteration, the federal program will try to maintain a balance between financial support and refraining from overreaching. It will allow the states more flexibility, expanding the number of intervention models from four to seven. It also allows schools to spend a full year planning for the changes they propose before attempting to implement them and extends the grants from three to five years. This state autonomy can be as a double-edged sword, however. While it provides opportunities for ownership and innovation, it may increase inequality between states.

The bottom line, though, is that turning around low-performing schools is incredibly complex and difficult. As Katharine Strunk noted in a recent Education Week post, “If improving schools was easy, we would be able to do it more frequently, and with better success. But like most things, improvement is hard, and we can learn from what doesn’t work to help foster what does.”

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.