Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Extreme School Makeovers

• March 16, 2010 • 5:00 AM

The 1 in 20 truly wretched schools in America need interventions, but the ‘turnaround’ effort has yet to prove itself the answer.

Last fall, a teenager on the South Side of Chicago was beaten to death during an after-school melee caught on videotape and spread widely on the Internet.

The violence was the indirect result of a so-called “turnaround” effort, the controversial practice of implementing radical changes to schools that have high dropout rates and low test scores. One neighborhood high school had been closed down, forcing students from two different areas to attend the same school.

In the aftermath, the killing was cited as an example of the kind of disaster that can result. Former Chicago teachers’ union leader Deborah Lynch called turnarounds “the deadliest reform of all.”

Tragedies, community pushback and mixed results haven’t daunted turnaround advocates’ efforts, however. Dramatic efforts to fix broken schools have spread from a handful of big-city school systems into a nationwide priority.

“The policy context, the degree to which the bully pulpit has changed the broader conversation, and the funding levels, have all changed dramatically since last year,” says Jordan Meranus, a partner with NewSchools Venture Fund, an organization that promotes turnarounds.

A turnaround effort is typically described as a vigorous, focused effort to fix a school over a short period of two or three years. It often includes staffing changes, curriculum and schedule changes, and the creation of small schools with some degree of autonomy from the district. Success is usually measured by increases in test scores, graduation rates and lower dropouts.

They’re everywhere these days. Six states just signed on to a $75 million turnaround initiative funded by a group of education philanthropies.

More than 40 states recently applied to win $4.3 billion in federal funding under “Race to the Top,” a new program that makes turnarounds a top priority. (Nearly the same amount is available to schools for turnarounds alone.)

The California Legislature passed a law in December that would give parents the ability to “trigger” turnaround efforts at failing schools. A similar measure has been introduced in Connecticut. President Obama pledged to turn around broken schools “that steal the future of too many young Americans” during his State of the Union address.

And yet, the questions remain: Are turnarounds a policy fad, a distraction from deeper, broader issues too hard to confront? Do they even work? Even if they do, where are the educators who want to take on this difficult, controversial work?

The overall number of profoundly broken schools is small – an estimated 5,000 schools (or about 5 percent). But they present a far-reaching challenge. They show up at the bottom of district rankings. They generate a disproportionate share of suspensions, expulsions and school safety incidents. Symbols of dysfunction and defeat, they poison public confidence.

The current “get-tough” turnaround movement grows out of big cities. New York City has already closed nearly 100 schools and opened more than 350 small ones as replacements. Chicago has closed roughly 60 schools and created 100 new ones, a program begun under Arne Duncan and continued by his successor after he became the U.S. education secretary.

Of course, efforts to revive lagging schools aren’t anything new. (Various school improvement strategies have come and gone over the past two decades, including most recently the approach called “restructuring” that was part of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal education law.) Most were too weak to have any real effect, or too drastic and disruptive to be considered viable. A handful has succeeded. The likelihood of success is estimated to be 30 to 50 percent. Some schools have been turned around twice or even three times.

Repeated efforts to “fix” Manual High School in Denver failed to take hold, including one championed by former superintendent (and current Colorado senator) Michael Bennet.

Teachers and community members in Chicago vehemently opposed the proposed takeover of Marshall High School announced this winter, even though you can count the percentage of students passing state exams at Chicago’s Marshall High on one hand.

Critics on the left usually point out that turnarounds are disruptive, unfair and ineffective ways to improve schools. They decry turnarounds as a way to blame teachers for districts’ inaction, or as a distraction from deeper problems of funding and support for education. They say that turnarounds don’t serve enough homeless, bilingual or special-ed students.

Critics on the right argue that fixing broken schools is a fool’s errand, uncertain and likely to be ineffective unless it’s accompanied by other elements — in particular, making families and students pick schools rather than assigning them by area.

“This isn’t just about the adults,” says Andy Smarick, a right-leaning education analyst based in Washington, D.C. “It’s about the kids, too.”

In places like Chicago and New York City, opposition has grown stronger over time. A January story in the Chicago Tribune showed that state test scores from newly created elementary schools were no different than those of long-existing neighborhood schools and that passing rates on state tests in new high schools were even lower than the district average. Some schools there have been improved without drastic measures, according to recent press reports. Others are on their second and third rounds of being fixed. Teachers and community leaders are fighting tooth and nail the proposed closure of two dozen New York City schools.

The size of the challenge and the howls of protest from around the country have already forced some changes in the turnaround juggernaut. Secretary Duncan has recently rolled back his initial goal of revamping 1,000 broken schools each year for the next four years, acknowledging the lack of capacity and interest to go that far that fast. The effort could now reach as few as 600 schools.

The federal rules now include a more moderate turnaround option, the so-called “transformation” model, which requires only the installation of a new principal rather than wholesale changes to the rest of the staff. Other loopholes may allow broken schools to delay changes while they study the problem.

Those tasked with the daunting job have learned some key lessons over the years. Administrators have learned to expect howls of protest no matter how violent or dysfunctional a school may be. (They compare the process to moving a graveyard or merging high schools.)

It’s taken more than two years for the dust to settle around the turnaround of Chicago’s Orr High School. The nonprofit hired a star principal from Memphis to run things, built new science labs, created an advisory system and brought in parents to help patrol the hallways.

“It’s always painful,” said David Pickens, Arne Duncan’s point person on Chicago turnarounds, in The New York Times. “It’s like a root canal every year.”

Figuring out what to do with kids who’ve been displaced — busing them to other schools, enrolling them in new schools — is a delicate dance of logistics that turns out to be nearly as important as picking which schools to turn around and hiring new staff.

Other keys seem to be developing a robust school safety plan and focusing on changing the culture of a building rather than academic changes. Deciding what to do with displaced teachers is another issue. Quick test score improvements are important for reasons of politics and public perception.

Finding the right people willing to take on the job is perhaps the biggest problem. Broken schools often attract those who have no other options. Well-established charter networks like KIPP and Achievement First don’t appear interested in turnaround work, though a handful of outfits are already involved and a few more will be coming online soon.

In the meantime, the brave, desperate souls doing the actual work are chugging along, pushing and fixing and crossing their fingers that their efforts won’t be in vain.

Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles is in its second year of being turned around. Attendance and graduation rates went way up after the first year. The campus was much calmer and more orderly. But test scores weren’t dramatically different, and the push is on this year to make sure that the turnaround effort reaches into the classroom.

“Last year was all about culture,” says Cristina De Jesus, the chief academic officer for Green Dot Public Schools, the charter network that runs Locke and a dozen other schools. “This year’s all about rigor of instruction.”

Locke will get its second batch of test scores back over the summer, and only then will it be clear whether the turnaround was really worth all the effort.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Alexander Russo
Alexander Russo was a 2009 Spencer Education Fellow at Columbia University’s Journalism School. He blogs at This Week In Education and D299: The Chicago Schools Blog.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.