The Turnaround Fallacy

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Stop trying to fix failing schools. Close them and start fresh.


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Winter 2010 / Vol. 10, No. 1

Video: Andy Smarick talks with Education Next about why the Obama administration needs to rethink its embrace of turnarounds and adopt a new strategy for the nation’s persistently failing schools.


For as long as there have been struggling schools in America’s cities, there have been efforts to turn them around. The lure of dramatic improvement runs through Morgan Freeman’s big-screen portrayal of bat-wielding principal Joe Clark, philanthropic initiatives like the Gates Foundation’s “small schools” project, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB)’s restructuring mandate. The Obama administration hopes to extend this thread even further, making school turnarounds a top priority.

But overall, school turnaround efforts have consistently fallen far short of hopes and expectations. Quite simply, turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America’s troubled urban school systems.

Fortunately, findings from two generations of school improvement efforts, lessons from similar work in other industries, and a budding practice among reform-minded superintendents are pointing to a promising alternative. When conscientiously applied strategies fail to drastically improve America’s lowest-performing schools, we need to close them.

Done right, not only will this strategy help the students assigned to these failing schools, it will also have a cascading effect on other policies and practices, ultimately helping to bring about healthy systems of urban public schools.

A Body at Rest Stays at Rest

Looking back on the history of school turnaround efforts, the first and most important lesson is the “Law of Incessant Inertia.” Once persistently low performing, the majority of schools will remain low performing despite being acted upon in innumerable ways.

Examples abound: In the first year of California’s Academic Performance Index, the state targeted its lowest-performing 20 percent of schools for intervention. After three years, only 11 percent of the elementary schools in this category (109 of 968) were able to make “exemplary progress.” Only 1 of the 394 middle and high schools in this category reached this mark. Just one-quarter of the schools were even able to accomplish a lesser goal: meeting schoolwide and subgroup growth targets each year.

In 2008, 52 Ohio schools were forced to restructure because of persistent failure. Even after several years of significant attention, fewer than one in three had been able to reach established academic goals, and less than half showed any student performance gains. The Columbus Dispatch concluded, “Few of them have improved significantly even after years of effort and millions in tax dollars.”

These state anecdotes align with national data on schools undergoing NCLB-mandated restructuring, the law’s most serious intervention, which follows five or more years of failing to meet minimum achievement targets. Of the schools required to restructure in 2004–05, only 19 percent were able to exit improvement status two years later.

A 2008 Center on Education Policy (CEP) study investigated the results of restructuring in five states. In California, Maryland, and Ohio, only 14, 12, and 9 percent of schools in restructuring, respectively, made adequate yearly progress (AYP) as defined by NCLB the following year. And we must consider carefully whether merely making AYP should constitute success at all: in California, for example, a school can meet its performance target if slightly more than one-third of its students reach proficiency in English language arts and math. Though the CEP study found that improvement rates in Michigan and Georgia were considerably higher, Michigan changed its accountability system during this period, and both states set their AYP bars especially low.

Though alarming, the poor record for school turnarounds in recent years should come as no surprise. A study published in 2005 by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) on state takeovers of schools and districts noted that the takeovers “have yet to produce dramatic consistent increases in student performance,” and that the impact on learning “falls short of expectations.”

Reflecting on the wide array of efforts to improve failing schools, one set of analysts concluded, “Turnaround efforts have for the most part resulted in only marginal improvements…. Promising practices have failed to work at scale when imported to troubled schools.”

Like Finding the Cure for Cancer

The second important lesson is the “Law of Ongoing Ignorance.” Despite years of experience and great expenditures of time, money, and energy, we still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent. A review published in January 2003 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation of more than 100 books, articles, and briefs on turnaround efforts concluded, “There is, at present, no strong evidence that any particular intervention type works most of the time or in most places.”

An EdSource study that sought to compare California’s low-performing schools that failed to make progress to its low-performing schools that did improve came to a confounding conclusion: clear differences avoided detection. Comparing the two groups, the authors noted, “These were schools in the same cities and districts, often serving children from the same backgrounds. Some of them also adopted the same curriculum programs, had teachers with similar backgrounds, and had similar opportunities for professional development.”

Maryland’s veteran state superintendent of schools, Nancy Grasmick, agrees: “Very little research exists on how to bring about real sea change in schools…. Clearly, there’s no infallible strategy or even sequence of them.” Responding to the growing number of failing Baltimore schools requiring state-approved improvement plans, she said, “No one has the answer. It’s like finding the cure for cancer.”

Researchers have openly lamented the lack of reliable information pointing to or explaining successful improvement efforts, describing the literature as “sparse” and “scarce.” Those attempting to help others fix broken schools have typically resorted to identifying activities in improved schools, such as bolstering leadership and collecting data.

However, this case-study style of analysis is deeply flawed. As the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has noted, studies “that look back at factors that may have contributed to [a] school’s success” are “particularly weak in determining causal validity for several reasons, including the fact that there is no way to be confident that the features common to successful turnaround schools are not also common to schools that fail.”

Researchers have noted that the Department of Education has signaled its own ignorance about what to do about the nation’s very worst schools. One study reported, “The NCLB law does not specify any additional actions for schools that remain in the implementation phase of restructuring for more than one year, and [the Department] has offered little guidance on what to do about persistently struggling schools.” Indeed, the IES publication, “Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools” practice guide, purportedly a resource for states and districts, concedes, “All recommendations had to rely on low levels of evidence,” because it could not identify any rigorous studies finding that “specific turnaround practices produce significantly better academic outcomes.”

Still in Its Infancy?

The prevailing view is that we must keep looking for turnaround solutions. Observers have written, “Turnaround at scale is still in its infancy,” and “In education, turnarounds have been tried rarely” (see “The Big U-Turn,” features, Winter 2009). But, in fact, the number and scope of fix-it efforts have been extensive to say the least.

Long before NCLB required interventions in the lowest-performing schools, states had undertaken significant activity. In 1989 New Jersey took over Jersey City Public Schools; in 1995 it took over Newark Public Schools. In 1993 California took control of the Compton Unified School District. In 1995 Ohio took over the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Between 1993 and 1997 states required the reconstitution of failing schools in Denver, Chicago, New York City, and Houston. In 2000 Alabama took over a number of schools across the state, and Maryland seized control of three schools in Baltimore.

Since NCLB, interventions in struggling schools have only grown in number and intensity. In the 2006–07 school year, more than 750 schools in “corrective action,” the NCLB phase preceding restructuring, implemented a new research-based curriculum, more than 700 used an outside expert to advise the school, nearly 400 restructured the internal organization of the school, and more than 200 extended the school day or year. Importantly, more than 300 replaced staff members or the principal, among the toughest traditional interventions possible.

Occasionally a program will report encouraging success rates. The University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program asserts that about half of its targeted schools have either made AYP or reduced math and reading failure rates by at least 5 percent. Though this might be better than would otherwise be expected, the threshold for success is remarkably low. It is also unknown whether such progress can be sustained. This matter is particularly important, given that some point to charter management organizations Green Dot and Mastery as turnaround success stories even though each has a very short turnaround résumé, in both numbers of schools and years of experience.

Many schools that reach NCLB’s restructuring phase, rather than implementing one of the law’s stated interventions (close and reopen as a charter school, replace staff, turn the school over to the state, or contract with an outside entity), choose the “other” option, under which they have considerable flexibility to design an improvement strategy of their own (see “Easy Way Out,” forum, Winter 2007). Some call this a “loophole” for avoiding tough action.

Yet even under the maligned “other” option, states and districts have tried an astonishing array of improvement strategies, including different types of school-level needs assessments, surveys of school staff, conferences, professional development, turnaround specialists, school improvement committees, training sessions, principal mentors, teacher coaches, leadership facilitators, instructional trainers, subject-matter experts, audits, summer residential academies, student tutoring, research-based reform models, reconfigured grade spans, alternative governance models, new curricula, improved use of data, and turning over operation of some schools to outside organizations.

It’s simply impossible to make the case that turnaround efforts haven’t been tried or given a chance to work.

A Better Mousetrap?

Despite this evidence, some continue to advocate for improved turnaround efforts. Nancy Grasmick supports recognizing turnarounds as a unique discipline. Frederick Hess and Thomas Gift have argued for developing school restructuring leaders; Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel have recommended that states and districts “fuel the pipeline” of untraditional turnaround specialists. NewSchools Venture Fund, the Education Commission of the States, and the research firm Mass Insight have offered related turnaround strategies.

And the Obama administration too has bought into the notion that turnarounds are the key to improving urban districts. Education secretary Arne Duncan has said that if the nation could turn around 1,000 schools annually for five years, “We could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children.” In the administration’s 2009 stimulus legislation, $3 billion in new funds were appropriated for School Improvement Grants, which aid schools in NCLB improvement status. The administration requested an additional $1.5 billion for this program in the 2010 budget. This is all on top of the numerous streams of existing federal funds that can be—and have been—used to turn around failing schools.

The dissonance is deafening. The history of urban education tells us emphatically that turnarounds are not a reliable strategy for improving our very worst schools. So why does there remain a stubborn insistence on preserving fix-it efforts?

The most common, but also the most deeply flawed, justification is that there are high-performing schools in American cities. That is, some fix-it proponents point to unarguably successful urban schools and then infer that scalable turnaround strategies are within reach. In fact, it has become fashionable among turnaround advocates to repeat philosopher Immanuel Kant’s adage that “the actual proves the possible.”

But as a Thomas B. Fordham Foundation study noted, “Much is known about how effective schools work, but it is far less clear how to move an ineffective school from failure to success…. Being a high-performing school and becoming a high-performing school are very different challenges.”

In fact, America’s most-famous superior urban schools are virtually always new starts rather than schools that were previously underperforming. Probably the most convincing argument for the fundamental difference between start-ups and turnarounds comes from those actually running high-performing high-poverty urban schools (see sidebar). Groups like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) and Achievement First open new schools; as a rule they don’t reform failing schools. KIPP’s lone foray into turnarounds closed after only two years, and the organization abandoned further turnaround initiatives. Said KIPP’s spokesman, “Our core competency is starting and running new schools.”

Start Schools from Scratch

Ask those who know how to run high-performing, high-poverty schools why they start fresh, and they’ll give strikingly similar answers—and make the case against turnarounds.

A study done for NewSchools Venture Fund found that the operators of school networks believed that “changing the culture of existing schools to facilitate learning was difficult to impossible.” One compared turnarounds to putting “old wine in new bottles.”

Tom Torkelson, CEO of the high-performing IDEA network agrees: “I don’t do turnarounds because a turnaround usually means operating within a school system that couldn’t stomach the radical steps we’d take to get the school back on track. We fix what’s wrong with schools by changing the practices of the adults, and I believe there are few examples where this is currently possible without meddling from teacher unions, the school board, or the central office.”

Chris Barbic, founder and CEO of the stellar YES Prep network, says that “starting new schools and having control over hiring, length of day, student recruitment, and more gives us a pure opportunity to prove that low-income kids can achieve at the same levels as their more affluent peers. If we fail, we have only ourselves to blame, and that motivates us to bring our A-game every single day.”

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg says simply, “The best way we can look a child in the eye and say with confidence what kind of school and environment we will provide is by starting that school and environment from scratch.”

A 2006 NewSchools Venture Fund study confirmed a widespread aversion to takeover-and-turnaround strategies among successful school operators. Only 4 of 36 organizations interviewed expressed interest in restructuring existing schools. Remarkably, rather than trusting successful school operators’ track records and informed opinion that start-ups are the way to go, Secretary Duncan urged them to get into the turnaround business during a speech at the 2009 National Charter Schools Conference.

The findings above deserve repeating: Fix-it efforts at the worst schools have consistently failed to generate significant improvement. Our knowledge base about improving failing schools is still staggeringly small. And exceptional urban schools are nearly always start-ups or consistently excellent schools, not drastically improved once-failing schools.

So when considering turnaround efforts we should stop repeating, “The actual proves the possible” and bear in mind a different Kant adage: “Ought implies can.”

If we are going to tell states and districts that they must fix all of their failing schools, or if we are to consider it a moral obligation to radically improve such schools, we should be certain that this endeavor is possible. But there is no reason to believe it is.

Turnarounds Elsewhere

Education leaders seem to believe that, outside of the world of schools, persistent failures are easily fixed. Far from it. The limited success of turnarounds is a common theme in other fields. Writing in Public Money & Management, researchers familiar with the true private-sector track record offered a word of caution: “There is a risk that politicians, government officials, and others, newly enamored of the language of failure and turnaround and inadequately informed of the empirical evidence and practical experience in the for-profit sector…will have unrealistic expectations of the transformative power of the turnaround process.”

Hess and Gift reviewed the success rates of Total Quality Management (TQM) and Business Process Reengineering (BPR), the two most common approaches to organizational reform in the private sector. The literature suggests that both have failed to generate the desired results two-thirds of the time or more. They concluded, “The hope that we can systematically turn around all troubled schools—or even a majority of them—is at odds with much of what we know from similar efforts in the private sector.”

Many have noted that flexibility and dynamism are part of the genetic code of private business, so we should expect these organizations to be more receptive to the massive changes required by a turnaround process than institutions set in what Hess calls the “political, regulatory, and contractual morass of K–12 schooling.” Accordingly, school turnarounds should be more difficult to achieve. Indeed, a consultant with the Bridgespan Group reported, “Turnarounds in the public education space are far harder than any turnaround I’ve ever seen in the for-profit space.”

Building a Healthy Education Industry

We shouldn’t be surprised then that turnarounds in urban education have largely failed. The surprise and shame is that urban public education, unlike nearly every other industry, profession, and field, has never developed a sensible solution to its continuous failures. After undergoing improvement efforts, a struggling private firm that continues to lose money will close, get taken over, or go bankrupt. Unfit elected officials are voted out of office. The worst lawyers can be disbarred, and the most negligent doctors can lose their licenses. Urban school districts, at long last, need an equivalent.

The beginning of the solution is establishing a clear process for closing schools. The simplest and best way to put this into operation is the charter model. Each school, in conjunction with the state or district, would develop a five-year contract with performance measures. Consistent failure to meet goals in key areas would result in closure. Alternatively, the state could decide that districts only have one option—not five—for schools reaching NCLB-mandated restructuring: closure.

This would have three benefits. First, children would no longer be subjected to schools with long track records of failure and high probabilities of continued failure.

Second, the fear of closure might generate improvement in some low-performing schools. Failure in public education has had fewer consequences (for adults) than in other fields, a fact that might contribute to the persistent struggles of some schools. We should have limited expectations in this regard, however. Even in the private sector, where the consequences for poor performance are significant, some low-performing entities never become successful.

Third, and by far the most important and least appreciated factor, closures make room for replacements, which have a transformative positive impact on the health of a field. When a firm folds due to poor performance, the slack is taken up by the expansion of successful existing firms—meaning that those excelling have the opportunity to do more—or by new firms. New entrants not only fill gaps, they have a tendency to better reflect current market conditions. They are also far likelier to introduce innovations: Google, Facebook, and Twitter were not products of long-standing firms. Certainly not all new starts will excel, not in education, not in any field. But when provided the right characteristics and environment, their potential is vast.

The churn caused by closures isn’t something to be feared; on the contrary, it’s a familiar prerequisite for industry health. Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan’s brilliant 2001 book Creative Destruction catalogued the ubiquity of turnover in thriving industries, including the eventual loss of once-dominant players. Churn generates new ideas, ensures responsiveness, facilitates needed change, and empowers the best to do more.

These principles can be translated easily into urban public education via tools already at our fingertips thanks to chartering: start-ups, replications, and expansions. Chartering has enabled new school starts for nearly 20 years and school replications and expansions for a decade. Chartering has demonstrated clearly that the ingredients of healthy, orderly churn can be brought to bear on public education.

A small number of progressive leaders of major urban school systems are using school closure and replacement to transform their long-broken districts: Under Chancellor Joel Klein, New York City has closed nearly 100 traditional public schools and opened more than 300 new schools. In 2004, Chicago announced the Renaissance 2010 project, which is built around closing chronically failing schools and opening 100 new public schools by the end of the decade.

Numerous other big-city districts are in the process of closing troubled schools, including Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In Baltimore, under schools CEO Andrés Alonso, reform’s guiding principles include “Closing schools that don’t work for our kids,” “Creating new options that have strong chances of success,” and “Expanding some programs that are already proving effective.”

Equally encouraging, there are indications that these ideas, which once would have been considered heretical, are being embraced by education’s cognoscenti. A group of leading reformers, the Coalition for Student Achievement, published a document in April 2009 that offered ideas for the best use of the federal government’s $100 billion in stimulus funding. They recommended that each state develop a mechanism to “close its lowest performing five percent of schools and replace them with higher-performing, new schools including public charter schools.”

A generation ago, few would have believed that such a fundamental overhaul of urban districts was on the horizon, much less that perennial underperformers New York City, Chicago, and Baltimore would be at the front of the pack with much of the education establishment and reform community in tow. But, consciously or not, these cities have begun internalizing the lessons of healthy industries and the chartering mechanism, which, if vigorously applied to urban schooling, have extraordinary potential. Best of all, these districts and outstanding charter leaders like KIPP Houston (with 15 schools already and dozens more planned) and Green Dot (which opened 5 new schools surrounding one of Los Angeles’s worst high schools) are showing that the formula boils down to four simple but eminently sensible steps: close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat.

Today’s fixation with fix-it efforts is misguided. Turnarounds have consistently shown themselves to be ineffective—truly an unscalable strategy for improving urban districts—and our relentless preoccupation with improving the worst schools actually inhibits the development of a healthy urban public-education industry.

Those hesitant about replacing turnarounds with closures should simply remember that a failed business doesn’t indict capitalism and an unseated incumbent doesn’t indict democracy. Though temporarily painful, both are essential mechanisms for maintaining long-term systemwide quality, responsiveness, and innovation. Closing America’s worst urban schools doesn’t indict public education nor does it suggest a lack of commitment to disadvantaged students. On the contrary, it reflects our insistence on finally taking the steps necessary to build city school systems that work for the boys and girls most in need.

Andy Smarick is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Comment on this article
  • […] should do what we know works.  That’s the message from Andy Smarick in his important EdNext article, The Turnaround […]

  • Dissenter says:

    Andy you’re a fine writer, but what value does this article add? Yes most turnarounds fail. Yes there are amazing charter schools. But what should be done as we wait for those amazing charter schools to reach scale? Haven’t we been waiting for them to expand for the last 10 years?

    Part of the reason these networks are successful is that they grow slowly and thoughtfully. Given that fact we can’t expect them to reach the kind of scale you’re envisioning. We need interventions because even though they might not work they’re better than the alternative: NOTHING.

  • dissenter says:

    One more thought: you could argue that given the scarcity of reasources we need to pick between turnarounds and charter schools. But I don’t think that argument holds water. Yes successful CMOs could probably use more moeny and this might help them expand – but isn’t the real constraint human capital? I’m not sure diverting money away from turnaround efforts would fix that problem.

  • Andrew Pass says:

    So, here’s my one question: How do we take your theoretical ideas and put them into practice. I agree with many of your points. But, now what?

    Andrew Pass

  • DLW3 says:

    My understanding of the proposal within this article is that it is contingent upon two key notions of reform: (1) School leaders need to have the same level of accountability as those in other professions–doctors, lawyers, etc… and (2) rather than rehabbing existing schools, we should utilize charters like KIPP and Green Dot to fill in the gaps. I find this second half of the proposal puzzling as earlier in the article the author suggests that these charters don’t have enough of a track record to become model of success, yet, at the same time, they are such an integral role of this reform model.

    What I see as left untouched here is consideration of a comprehensive vision of school and community reform. While increasing accountability may lead to some terrible schools being closed and some, temporarily, effective charter schools to become more widespread, this solution doesn’t account for the transformation of the environment within which the school is contained. It won’t make a difference whether KIPP or Green Dot takeover if in twenty years the needs an assets of communities continue to be ignored.

  • John Danner says:

    andy makes the point that anyone who’s run a for-profit business would make. bad organizations should fail. when they fail, they create space for new ones. eventually you get a new one that’s really good and it sticks around. this is not the kind of silver bullet that the education world wants, but unfortunately it’s how things really work. what’s even more important is that there is some either/or here between new starts and turnarounds – the real estate. If you do turnarounds you have to use that real estate to try again. If you don’t do a turnaround you can lease that space to a new start. Ultimately, you shouldn’t care which one you do, you should only care which one is more likely to succeed. Are turnarounds 5x harder than new starts? 10x? Whatever they are, do we have the right to choose an option that is more likely to fail just because it fits better with the current situation? The Obama administration has been really courageous on other aspects of education, I hope we can get over this one and focus on starting new excellent schools, providing both real estate and financial assistance to encourage small schools, charter schools, and other approaches to flourish and eventually come up with solutions that work in every troubled neighborhood.

  • Andy Smarick says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  • Don says:

    If we want students to become strong leaders, good problems solvers, and analytical thinkers, we must model that behavior when we assess their educational system.

    When one reads an article like this and finds a flawed argument, it is hard to know what parts of the article are worth reading or if the rest of the website is worth attention.

    Consider this quote from the author in a related article ( ) “Turnarounds have not only consistently failed in education; they fail in the vast majority of instances in other industries and sectors. Moreover, and most importantly, continuing to pursue turnarounds actually inhibits our ability to build healthy urban school systems.”

    Every one of man’s entities and his own life go through periods of decline and overwhelming success. Sometimes the decline is fatal. The majority of the time, the entity returns to vitality.

    The author suggests that most entities fail when they enter decline. If the author were correct, a very small number of organizations would survive an economic downturn like the one our country is experiencing. If the author were correct, very few countries would survive the global downturn. If the author were correct, very few businesses in New Orleans would have recovered from the economic devastation after the storm. If the author were correct, New York City would have gone out of existence in the 1970. If the author were correct, we would only have Chapter 7 bankruptcy fillings. However, most companies survive Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

    There are several highly skilled consultants in this country known as turnaround artists. They take on the struggling and restore them to vitality. The top management consulting firms offer turnaround services. They have admirable records of success. There are corporate executives who have made a career out of restoring vitality to failing businesses. Mission Enablers, the firm I work for, provides those services to private and parochial schools as well as nonprofits and churches.

    Some organizations should be allowed to fail. However, most can be saved, if there is a combination of will and skill. One needs to make a case-by-case objective assessment of the situation before deciding that it is better to start fresh. There are times when the cheapest, fastest, and most effective solution is a turnaround.

    A quote from this article worth thinking about is, “Examples abound: In the first year of California’s Academic Performance Index, the state targeted its lowest-performing 20 percent of schools for intervention. After three years, only 11 percent of the elementary schools in this category (109 of 968) were able to make “exemplary progress.””

    Is that an example of a failed process? Is 11% a successful process that can be refined to help an increasing number of schools? Which is cheaper to abandon what works sometimes and start fresh or refine what works sometimes?

    Consider the quote that starts this comment and the preceding quote. Does 11% success justify the claim that turnarounds consistently fail? An 11% success ratio certainly implies selective success for the methodology used. Would a different methodology produce similar or better results in the other 859 schools? Why would it be wrong to try to find other viable methodologies?

    One size never fits all. Why is it necessary to have only one solution for 968 problems?

    In summary, what we need is a combination of strategies. Turnaround failing schools when the conditions justify it and start fresh when appropriate. Use the right tool at the right time and always be to open and objective. In addition, we must constantly be sharpening our tools to ensure increasing success.

    With millions of children’s lives at stake and billions of dollars at risk, we need to be open to all possibilities.

  • Piet van Lier says:

    There are some holes in this argument for using the business model, even if it exists in such pure form as Andy describes. For one, successful charter operators, for understandable reasons, often like to phase in new schools.

    So if K-8 school A is shut down and start-up B replaces it but only with grades k-2 the first year, what happens to all those kids in grades 3-8? And that’s only one school, thinking of this happening “at scale” is troubling.

    Talking so briskly about how a business model can save education ignores the fact that when a business closes, employees (hopefully) find new jobs and the products and services they sold are provided to buyers through other means.

    Children and their families are not “consumers” in the same way — when their education is disrupted, there is a long-term impact unless there is a smooth transition.

    Creative destruction sounds great when you’re talking about a widget maker; when you’re talking about kids’ lives, it sounds a bit harsh.

    Certainly plenty of districts are not serving enough children well, but it’s not clear that this proposal is the solution — we need a mix of solutions that can lead to strong public education systems.

  • John Alford says:

    I agree that closure is an option that needs to be used 100 times more than it currently is being used. School closure is not going to be politically feasible to be the model for improving schools. I hate to be cliche but the actual proves the possible. The problem with past turnaround efforts is who has led them. If our most succesful CMOs tried to turnaround schools, they would do it well.

  • L Pawlson says:

    In the past, turnaround has not usually included the scenario of high-quality charter school operators taking over schools and keeping the kids, but changing virtually everything else. Unless you believe that students are somehow responsible for the failure of their schools, you must believe that these same students, in a changed environment will be able to succeed. Also, a small fact correction, KIPP actually engaged in two turnaround efforts, and the one not mentioned in this article, Phillips Academy in New Orleans, showed strong signs of early success before Hurricane Katrina washed it away.

  • […] Arne Duncan wants to “turn around” 5,000 low-performing schools. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to save failing schools, writes Andy Smarick in Education Next. Millions of dollars have been spent trying with little […]

  • […] Writing in Education Next magazine, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute stands up and shouts, “Wait just a minute!”: […]

  • […] leading wet blanket for fixing failing schools, and folks are sure to be talking about his newest piece in EdNext, “The Turnaround Fallacy” (NB: he’s also a friend and a very smart guy, although […]

  • M VanBuren says:

    The elephant in the room is the funding of these new schools. If failing schools are being closed rapidly, where will the added funding come from to open many smaller schools? Large centralized school districts benefit from economies of scale. Creating many small charters or dissolving school districts creates a new funding demand as new schools are opened (with new equipment, new supplies, new books, new facilities). Where’s the money going to come from?

    Also, I’d like to know how the turn-around effort affects successful schools. I work at a school where test scores are good, AP classes are plentiful and the graduation rate is high. Because of the need to make annual progress, our administration treats the school like a failing school and constantly implements turn-around strategies. The focus is constantly shifting and my guess is that this approach will soon start driving down scores and disrupting the structure which has historically made our school successful. Are there any findings regarding how these heroic turnaround-efforts affect successful schools when principals start panicing about making huge improvement gains?

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    As a longtime teacher educator in America’s second poorest major city, there are a few puzzling things about this discussion.

    First, we judge schools to be “failing” with reference to more successful schools, with the failing ones usually in the poor parts of town, and the successful ones in the wealthier part of town. It’s a zero sum game, because half the schools will always be below average, and there will always be a bottom 20% of schools. Being shocked, shocked! that some school is in the bottom 10% is like being shocked that there are losing teams in the NFL, or shocked that they can’t all be turned into winning teams next year.

    It’s great to be horrified that conditions are inhumane or unacceptably violent in many of these schools, or that kids aren’t learning specific things, and work to end some specific condition, but there is no evidence anywhere that anyone knows how to bring an entire high-poverty urban district up to the level of the schools in wealthy suburbs. A few boutique schools with high test scores (and many with high dropout rates) doesn’t change the discussion any.

    What’s in my circle of influence is to encourage teachers to be better than seems possible, but what is in national policymakers’ circle of influence is to try to change macro conditions so that we don’t have so many kids in poverty and so many high-poverty schools where kids feel like there is no hope. If you see your relatives losing ground economically despite working two jobs and having stayed in school, all that rah-rah stuff about education isn’t convincing.

    The second puzzle is this strange rich man’s assumption that free markets create uniform excellence everywhere. Drive through the poor parts of town, and you’ll find that the private for-profit services (restaurants, etc.) are lousy compared to those in the rich parts of town in exactly the same way that public schools in the poor parts of town are often lousy in comparison to those in the rich parts of town.

    Again, “failing” as we discuss schools is a normative term, and in that sense, market solutions fail to ensure widespread excellence in private sector goods and services as well. Don’t rich folks know that most goods and services are average to mediocre to lousy? Yes, goods improve over time, but there is the same “gap” between rich and poor in what citizens get from the private sector as in what they get from the public sector. And the gap is increasing.

    Perhaps we should hold Ben Bernanke more “accountable” and fire him because he’s been unable to solve the deplorable “mansion gap” between rich and poor. If he just had higher expectations for blue-collar workers, do you think we’d all have the same size mansions?

    Inequality begets inequality.

  • John says:

    “We need interventions because even though they might not work they’re better than the alternative: NOTHING”

    Now there’s a desperate thought!

  • Dr. Ed says:

    Using the business model for schools also ignores the observation that over half of new business fail in the first few years.

    The real key to success is high quality, energetic, competent principals in the schools. While all the inequalities will continue to exist, hiring good people, training and supporting them will foster increased student gains.
    Dr. Ed

  • Education Next says:

    The following was submitted as a letter to the editor:

    Incremental improvement strategies are not the same as whole school turnaround. Andy Smarick’s recent article (“The Turnaround Fallacy,” Winter 2010) applies the word “turnaround” to a wide range of efforts to help struggling schools and, while he makes an interesting case, I disagree with his premise that school turnaround efforts “have consistently fallen far short of hopes and expectations.”

    We have had success – using a very specific turnaround model – in transforming some of Chicago’s poorest performing schools. None of the school improvement efforts Smarick describes are the kind of whole school, top-to-bottom transformation that applies to what is happening in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that are led by the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL).

    Since 2006, CPS has brought in AUSL to turn around eight schools where the test scores, attendance, discipline issues and graduation rates tell us the students are not getting the education they need. Our top-to-bottom approach is like hitting a reset button for these schools. We accomplish this without disruption to students, who return in the fall to their neighborhood school, which has been transformed with renovated facilities, a new principal who has hand-picked a new team of teachers, a new curriculum, new conduct codes and disciplinary standards, and new expectations for student success. And we deliberately foster the direct involvement of parents and community members.

    Our data – dramatically improved attendance, test scores, and attitudes toward learning – demonstrate success. We also have the overwhelming support of students, parents, and teachers who have participated in the process, some of them formerly among our loudest critics.

    It’s not realistic to think that dozens of failing schools in Chicago (and thousands nationally) can be closed and effectively replaced with new-start schools. There aren’t sufficient budget and time resources. And our students do not have time to wait while we sort out new-start school options. At AUSL, we are transforming schools now because our students deserve nothing less.

    Dr. Donald Feinstein
    Executive Director
    Academy for Urban School Leadership

  • Education Next says:

    The following was submitted as a letter to the editor:

    To EducationNext:

    Andy Smarick makes a compelling argument that we would be better off closing failing schools (The Turnaround Fallacy, Winter 2010), but he doesn’t take into account the stark reality that often urban districts simply have too many “failing schools” to close them all. Closing a district’s most persistently underperforming schools must be an option, but districts cannot stop there. Even the most extreme school closure program will leave the majority of students in their current schools, many of which are also inadequate. Instead, districts must develop a comprehensive approach to address all of their turnaround schools as well as low-performing schools that don’t quite qualify for turnaround attention.

    At Education Resource Strategies (ERS) we believe that districts need to make decisions about failing schools as part of a long-range, district-wide strategy that incorporates all resources—people, time, and money. While we agree with Smarick that evidence is not clear on a single turnaround strategy that works, we do know that schools can accelerate improvement through strong, transformational leaders, collaborative teacher teams, and targeting expertise and resources to help students who have fallen behind. It is true that success for turning schools around is mixed, but there is a lot that districts can do to increase the probability of success. These keys to success include:

    1. Implementing a district-wide strategy for measuring school performance and determining appropriate action, including the possibility of school closure
    2. Recruiting transformational school leaders who can establish high expectations for improved performance
    3. Implementing strategies that give these leaders the flexibility to efficiently assign teaching staff and to assemble high-performing teams with appropriate expertise
    4. Ensuring sufficient expert instructional support and collaborative time for teachers to adjust instruction based on data
    5. Funding targeted student support and taking the time to accelerate student learning
    6. Providing additional problem solving and support from central staff

    A successful turnaround strategy might be as ambitious as a “cure for cancer,” as Smarick claims. So just like medical researchers we have to keep trying. Closing schools should unquestionably be part of a school districts’ strategy, but only a district-wide transformation will result in improving education for all children that the district serves.

    Karen Hawley Miles
    President and Executive Director
    Education Resource Strategies

  • […] Jay Mathews joins Andy Smarick in advocating for shutting down dropout factories and other poor-performing […]

  • […] article in the current issue of Education Next. Its called the Turnaround Fallacy. The author, Andy Smarick, […]

  • […] In the other corner (in the blue shirt) are those who argue that the best way to deal with failing schools or companies is to close them down and start new ones. The evidence they display come from two sources: the instability of turnarounds to stayed turned aro…. […]

  • Trish Williams, Executive Director, EdSource says:

    An important clarification/correction: Your article references an EdSource study but you don’t cite the name. I’m assuming its one released in the fall of 2005 called Similar Students, Different Results: Why Some Schools Do Better. Unfortunately, you mischaracterized the study. EdSource has never done a study of why some low performing schools improve and others don’t. The SSDR study conducted an extensive survey of the principals and thousands of classroom teachers of 257 high performing and low performing elementary schools that had very similar student populations (predominantly low income families with low parental education levels, and high percentages of EL, African American, and Latino students) . The survey asked hundreds of questions about school practices and policies. After controlling for student demographics, we analyzed each school’s survey responses against school scores on California Academic Performance Index. We DID find many practices that differentiated higher performing schools from lower, serving similar students. The study ‘s report can be found at But it had nothing to do with turning around low performing schools.

    FYI, we are releasing findings in late February on a similar study of 303 middle grades schools and of the many district and school practices that differentiate the high performers from the low performers. This new study used the 2009 CSTs on math and English language arts in grades 6-8 as the dependent variable, and has test data going back four years for the 204,000 students in the school sample.

  • Education Next says:

    The following was submitted as a letter to the editor:

    Andy Smarick’s “The Turnaround Fallacy” (features, Winter 2010) suffers from three fallacies. First, Smarick erroneously believes that school turnarounds have been tried widely and haven’t worked. In fact, interventions in failing schools are typically lukewarm and reliant on coaching, new curriculum packages, or other rearranging of deck chairs. Real turnaround attempts, in which a district hires a highly capable leader with “the big yes” to do what’s needed to fix the school, almost never happen.

    Second, he wrongly suggests that in healthy industries, leaders don’t try to fix failing units, which simply close and make way for new upstarts. In fact, large companies with failing units try many strategies. They typically start by enforcing faithful execution of practices that work in other areas. When that doesn’t work, they replace the leader and give the new manager a change mandate. Smarick is right that the threat of closure is essential; today, bad schools have more lives than cats. To rescue more schools from “the brink of doom,” policymakers must make the option of school “doom” real, but then vigorously try to fix failing schools in the meantime.

    Third, he grossly overstates the potential of start-up schools. Don’t get us wrong. We strongly back a large-scale effort to start great new schools. But research from other sectors pegs the probability of start-up success at about 25 percent, comparable to the estimated 30 percent of major corporate-change efforts that succeed. Like Smarick, we’re fans of outliers like KIPP, but together these networks will add a few hundred schools, not the few thousand we need. Even if these networks are joined by other wildly successful upstarts, only a small fraction of students in failing schools will benefit.

    That’s why the nation needs a portfolio of strategies to change the fortunes of kids trapped in failing schools. Clinging to just one approach will write off millions who desperately need something different. Let’s start great new schools and fix bad ones. Let’s expect both strategies to work some of the time, but not always. And when they don’t work, let’s try again, rapidly, so kids don’t continue to languish in schools that aren’t getting the job done.

    Bryan C. Hassel & Emily Ayscue Hassel
    Public Impact

  • Education Next says:

    The following was submitted as a letter to the editor:

    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

  • Woody Grant says:

    I’m amazed that throughout the years the fixing has been focused on the kids, and not on those of us who facilitate the education process. Once a child of any age realizes that his/her teacher really cares(loves) about them, nothing will impede their effort to please their teacher…Learning(FOR TEACHER AND STUDENT) occurs when the teacher-student relationship reflects mutual respect,trust and love. Teacher culture plus student culture within this context will become a school culture that only improves as adults in the equation commit to loving the children unconditionally….

  • […] debate over closing schools versus transforming schools is on-going (read a pro closing argument here and also read the comments, and the recent Chicago Consortium Study, casting doubt on school […]

  • […] February 25 tags: Race to the Top, School Turnaround by nashvillejefferson Although there is a national debate about whether school turnaround is even possible, a significant part of the Race to the Top […]

  • bill jones says:

    Please explain this contradiction.

    Students are not held accountable for the present failing schools, and yet they are KEY to the success of any “new” school? When has THAT logic ever worked in the private sector?

    The present school improvement logic is a lot like the” hole in the tennis racket” theory. A lousy player always look at his or her racket and blames the equipment.

    Why not close the bottom 20% of schools, hire KIPP, fire all teachers and overhead, and re-open the school the next Monday with new leadership independent of the school district for the SAME students?

    Let’s see what happens then.

    My guess: The same results at best.

    It appears there is cultural encoding in these old buildings and school symbols that has conditioned parents and children to expect a certain educational outcome: And that may just be sustained low performance.

    Unless the government or KIPP is willing to use brutal COMPULSION nothing will change.

    We built and maintain a culture of failure in education that is perpetuated by the armies of well paid, well heeled consultants and businesses whose career is perpetuating the problem.

  • […] Next released my article “The Turnaround Fallacy,” which argues for an alternative to the education reform world’s current fixation on […]

  • […] state of underperformance. (He uses arguments and data from my Education Next article “The Turnaround Fallacy” to build his […]

  • […] Moreover, turnarounds in other fields and industries have the same distressing track record. (This Education Next article fully discusses this […]

  • […] Pilot schools (2007). None of these models has performed at the level of charter schools. Worse, turnaround models across the country have a checkered record, when they continue under the aegis of school committees and superintendents. At most a handful […]

  • […] “The surprise and shame is that urban public education, unlike nearly every other industry, profession and field, has never developed a sensible solution to its continuous failures.” Smarick wrote in The Turnaround Fallacy. […]

  • JIMH says:

    Setting all the Edu-Speak aside, if you have low-performing schools, you have one person to blame: The Principal………If the District and the School Board has empowered the school leader to enact whatever reforms are necessary, and the school is still under-performing, then a new leader is required.

    If everyone on the campus is not on the team, get rid of them, anyone not on board is actively working against educating children and does not deserve to keep their job.

  • […] fact KIPP failed to hack it in the same playing field as Public Schools.  Here is Richard D. Kahlenberg’s piece from the […]

  • […] to the school; and where students not only leave, but large number of students enter — KIPP abandoned the field after just two […]

  • Fran Upshaw says:

    Yes, we would like for all students to achieve the standards established by so-called experts who want to turnaround failing schools but nowhere do I see a recognition that all students are created equal in abilities, talents, and motivations. I do not know of any study on the effect of dropouts since No Child Left Behind. Would it not be wise to offer these underserved students the option of enrolling into a vocational training program, an opportunity to become a productive adult? Would it not free teachers to devote more energy into high performing students? Has no one read Aesop’s Fabels? They should.

  • […] turnaround school intervention, receiving some criticism nationwide, reduces the authority of the local board of […]

  • […] by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later,according to Andy Smarick (now an adjutant to New Jersey school czar Chris Cerf); fewer than one in ten […]

  • […] be fixed, they must be closed, abandoned and replaced by charters. The article was called “The Turnaround Fallacy,” and the subtitle was “Stop trying to fix failing schools. Close them and start […]

  • […] by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later,according to Smarick in his famed text on school […]

  • HusbandofteacherinWI says:

    Everything begins with better parenting. Parents need to spend more time helping their children and less time watching TV and playing video games. Next, take the unresponsive children out of the public education system. I really do feel for people who have children who are so emotionally or developmentally challenged that they can’t deal with them 24/7 however, teachers who are expected to raise scores for students while three or four or sometimes six students in a class can’t even speak because of their disabilities, are almost always misjudged by the statistics. Special needs students need special teachers and classes. PERIOD. Last, eliminate the “entitlement” attitude that bad teachers with tenure have – performance based reviews and better salaries to better teachers is the way to weed out the good from the chaff…

  • […] secondary level – is quite possibly the hardest work in K-12 public education. Over and over, the lessons of turnaround schools are unforgiving, and Denver is no exception. The new principal at North High is by all accounts a […]

  • […] options here. a University of Virginia study points to key successful strategies, an Education Next essay concludes most turnaround efforts have […]

  • […] strategy – allowing the current governing entity to try and make the school better – rarely succeeds. In New Orleans, where I work, we have rightly abandoned this strategy. Instead of continually […]

  • […] by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to Bellwether Education Partners’ Andy Smarick in his famed text on school turnarounds. […]

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