AEI — School Turnarounds: Resisting the Hype, Giving Them Hope

American Enterprise Institute:

Today, the notion that turnarounds constitute a new, better way to solve the countless problems facing America’s schools is gaining immense popularity among reformers of all stripes. Roughly 3,300 schools are estimated to be in turnaround mode in 2008-2009, and approximately 4,900 are projected to be in 2009-2010.[1] Approximately 90 percent of these schools are in large urban districts.[2]

Scholars and practitioners are seeking to answer this demand–and, in some cases, helping to fuel expectations. For instance, the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Curry School of Education has developed a cocurricular program designed to instruct experts charged with turning around consistently low-performing schools.[3] Run jointly with UVA’s Darden School of Business, the program takes candidates from inside and outside education and equips “turnaround specialists” to tackle some of the state’s toughest schools. The Chicago International Charter School, which operates eleven campuses in Chicago, has launched a new turnaround initiative called ChicagoRise. It holds out the promise that specialized teaching staffs and dynamic management practices are the keys to turning around that city’s chronically low-performing public schools.[4] The Louisiana School Turnaround Specialist Program recruits and grooms a cadre of school leaders prepared to turn around failing schools.[5] The New York-based Rensselaerville Institute’s School Turnaround contracts with turnaround experts nationwide and even offers a “money-back guarantee” for partner schools that fail to reach their achievement goals.[6]

Popular media accounts portray a glowing image of these projects. A LexisNexis search of major U.S. newspapers found 149 articles that included the phrase “school turnaround” in the last two years. In a systematic evaluation, we found that about half of those articles depicted turnarounds in a positive light, and just one in ten stories were skeptical or negative.[7] Typical headlines included: “Chicago looks to ‘turnarounds’ to lift failing schools” (Christian Science Monitor, February 15, 2008); “School turnaround may help students, schools” (Times, Shreveport, Louisiana, July 12, 2007); and “School turnaround? ‘Absolutely’” (Oregonian, Portland, May 8, 2007).

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