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school turnarounds
A September 2020 meta-analysis found that student achievement tended to improve after a school turnaround. But not always. In some cases, such as in North Carolina, pictured above, student achievement suffered after a turnaround effort. Credit: Photo by Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

How do you fix a broken, failing school where student achievement, attendance and graduation rates are rock bottom? Education experts argue over this a lot. One idea has been to bring in a new principal and make drastic changes to turn the school around quickly like the way corporate turnaround artists revive a bankrupt company. 

School turnarounds are dramatic moves — sometimes jettisoning the entire teaching staff — that eschew slow, incremental change. The idea gained popularity in the 2000s and the Obama administration spent more than $3.5 billion on rapid turnarounds for schools that ranked among the bottom 5 percent. The results weren’t great. A Mathematica study of 480 low-performing schools found that the federally funded turnaround efforts failed to boost math or reading scores or high school graduation or college enrollment rates. It seemed that the whole notion of quick school turnarounds was a misguided failure.

But now a pair of researchers has gone back to review all the data and studies on recent turnaround efforts and synthesized the results from 35 different studies, of which the influential Mathematica study is but one. Their fresh look at the collective evidence shows that rapid turnarounds aren’t useless, according to a paper published September 2020 in the journal of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Indeed, attendance, test scores and graduation rates all tend to improve in schools that embark on a turnaround.

School attendance increased by almost a half a percentage point, on average, and graduation rates increased by almost 10 percentage points. Math and reading test scores went up by a small amount, particularly after the second year of a turnaround and beyond. The researchers characterized the gains as similar to those of previous reform efforts, such as New York City’s experiment with smaller high schools or the national whole school reform movement of the 1990s. 

“There is positive evidence for school turnarounds,” said Christopher Redding, an assistant professor of education at the University of Florida, who was one of the study’s co-authors. “Maybe this is a way that we can move forward. But it’s very disruptive and it raises serious questions about local ownership and trust of public institutions. It gives me some pause to give a strong recommendation for turnarounds based on our findings.”

No one, including Redding, is disputing the rigorous Mathematica study. But if you add additional turnaround efforts that the Mathematica study didn’t look at, the evidence for school turnarounds is more positive. For example, turnarounds in Tennessee, New Orleans, Boston and Lawrence, Massachusetts, produced strong achievement gains. Some took place after the Mathematica study. The Mathematica study also ignored the very worst schools in its analysis and those schools tended to show larger gains after a turnaround effort, Redding explained to me. (The Mathematica researchers focused on borderline schools that were just below and above a federal threshold to qualify for turnaround funds and found that the schools that went through turnarounds didn’t have better outcomes than those that didn’t.)

The word “turnaround” itself is a nebulous catchall concept, encompassing everything from new leadership and staff to new rules and policies. Sometimes existing teachers are retrained and sometimes they’re replaced. Sometimes new leaders introduce a data-driven culture where students are frequently tested and both teachers and principals are judged by how much test scores improve. In some cases, principals are given extra autonomy to run the school as they see fit, controlling the budget and expanding the school schedule with longer days or weeks. Stricter school discipline for students has been a common theme in many turnarounds. The researchers even considered some charter schools to be a turnaround if charter administrators took over a traditional public school and restarted it.

The authors tried to tease out which types of turnarounds worked better than others but the studies didn’t point to a clear conclusion. There were success stories for both retaining and replacing teachers. In other words, sometimes it’s sufficient to replace the principal without changing the labor force, a move that has been politically and racially fraught in some communities. 

Although school closures aren’t really a turnaround effort, one of the few clear insights from the meta-analysis is that closing down low-performing schools and sending the students to better schools elsewhere generally didn’t work. Often there weren’t much better schools nearby for kids to go to. 

A second clear insight is that there are no quick wins, as advocates of turnaround strategies had hoped. Across all types of turnarounds, achievement gains mostly emerged in the second, third and fourth years of implementation. The researchers urged policymakers to “temper their expectations regarding the immediacy of turnaround efforts.”

There were also several cases of negative outcomes, where students were left worse off from a turnaround. In addition to some school closures, students were left worse off in a turnaround attempt in Rhode Island where school leaders and teachers struggled to implement so many reforms at once. Another risk is when higher income students flee a school that is undergoing a turnaround, which a North Carolina study documented.

I was thinking, as I read this meta-analysis, how Silicon Valley types like to celebrate disruption and they might consider school turnarounds to be a classic case in point. Maybe you fire some teachers and break some things in the process, but look, the kids end up learning more. That’s ultimately what we want, right? 

The catch here is that most of these turnaround efforts were accompanied by a huge influx of federal funds. The turnarounds came with money. And there’s a growing body of research showing that student achievement tends to go up when you spend more money on students. It’s possible that all the achievement gains we’re seeing in this analysis happened because we spent more money on low-income students, not because we turned their schools around. 

Unfortunately, we don’t know if the extra money was driving the results here. Redding said you’d have to track long-term test scores for the children in these turnaround schools to see if achievement remained high after the turnaround funds were spent.

This story about school turnaround was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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