My official response to “The Turnaround Fallacy”

EdNext just posted my official response to “The Turnaround Fallacy” article from last fall.  Click here to read it alongside those from Don Feinstein from AUSL, Bryan and Emily Hassel from Public Impact, and Karen Hawley Miles of Education Resource Strategies.  Full text below:

Andy Smarick suggests that the energy we spend turning around failing schools would be better spent shutting them down and starting new ones. That’s part of the solution, but we should be skeptical that closure alone is the answer.

First, this argument assumes that “close and replace” always beats turnaround on results. Smarick cites literature on businesses in the private sector, where turnarounds work only one-third of the time. He’s right, but what’s not cited is the fact that less than 30 percent of new businesses last more than six years. Not the dramatically better results we’re looking for.

But maybe this churn means better student outcomes, which leads to my second point. The data don’t look good for that either. A recent report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research studied the nation’s largest close-and-replace strategy. More often than not, the strategy meant worse outcomes for the children. Moreover, a recent study by CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) at Stanford tells us that only one-third of new charter schools are demonstrably better than their neighborhood comparisons. The rest are the same or worse.

Third, the word “turnaround” can be used to mean different things, and sometimes it’s code for weak interventions. I agree with Smarick when he talks about the failed strategies of the past, but a reasonable definition of turnaround should exclude those half measures. The new federal guidelines for school improvement adopt a more robust definition of turnaround, wherein the adults in a building, especially teachers and leadership, are subject to change, and outside organizations can manage schools under performance contracts.

Our research shows that high-poverty schools that outperform their peers share certain qualities: an intense focus on instructional practice, an integrated approach to student support services, and flexibility from bureaucratic operating conditions. The creative destruction and market competition inherent in closure are great for allocating scarce resources, but they’re not enough to ensure quality and equity for vulnerable children. We need to invest in turning around failing schools as well.

Justin C. Cohen
The School Turnaround Strategy Group
Mass Insight

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