Even Under the Best of Circumstances, Turnarounds Fail

By 12/15/2010

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There’s plenty of sobering news in Fordham’s new report, Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors. (Merry Christmas!) But perhaps the most depressing is this: even low-performing charter schools, which have all the right incentives to improve, and few of the constraints that might get in the way, rarely manage to do so.

In the study, David Stuit examined low-performing schools in ten states from 2003-04 to 2008-09. A sizable number of those schools were charters. One might figure that, if the charter model was working as intended, these charters would either improve or go out of business. Yet 72 percent of the charter schools remained bad–and remained open–five years later. (Another 19 percent were shuttered–better than the 11 percent in the district sector, but still not great.) Just nine percent improved enough to climb out of the bottom quartile of performance (as measured by proficiency rates) in their respective states.

(For sure, it’s possible that many of these schools are making big value-added gains for their students, but still aren’t hitting the mark in terms of proficiency. Possible but unlikely.)

So why are so many low-performing charter schools continuing to stumble? They have strong incentives to improve–conceivably they could be shut down, plus they need to attract students–and most are free from the myriad constraints that low-performing district schools face. They don’t have teachers unions. They can remove and replace staff relatively easily. They have total control over their curriculum and school day. Except for their funding, their destiny is in their own hands. And yet achievement remains stubbornly low.

But for some reason, Arne Duncan and other reformers believe that, with another $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants, we’re going to be able to dramatically turn around failing district schools even though their incentives (or lack thereof) and constraints (or abundance thereof) make them even worse bets than the low-performing charters. Remind me again why we think that’s going to work?

-Mike Petrilli

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