Sunday, November 25, 2012

Andy Smarick Responds on School Turnarounds

Turning to the various responses to my last email, here is Andy Smarick:

Hi Whitney,

It feels like deja vous being back in another turnaround debate!  Thanks for letting me briefly respond to the turnaround defenders you’re hearing from.

It seems like three categories of responses are warranted.  The first is for those who aren’t aware of the LONG history of failed turnaround efforts over the last couple generations.  I’d really encourage them to read Chapter 4, “The Failure of Fixing,” of my new book, The Urban School System of the Future. It walks through the history of previous initiatives, cites more studies than anyone should ever read, and offers an explanation for why these efforts keep failing.  For those who don’t want to read a book chapter, “The Turnaround Fallacy” from Ed Next, though a couple years old, covers much of the same ground.  If someone wants a view other than mine, they could read Tom Loveless’s research or David Stuit’s.

The second category is for those, believing UDED’s storyline, think the SIG results aren’t so bad.  First, they ought to read what I wrote for Flypaper and look at the data.  BILLIONS were spent and more than 1/3 of schools got WORSE.  And these were already among the nation’s lowest performing schools.

Moreover, there are lots of red flags.  Why did the DOE try to bury the story by releasing the data on a Friday before Thanksgiving when they’ve had it available for some time?  Why do they not compare SIG results to non-SIG results (as is common practice)?  Why don’t they give us the pre- and post-intervention scores (as is common practice)?  Why does the Secretary’s own quote from the Dept’s press release discuss “change” instead of results (a common defense of failed turnaround efforts)?  Why do they downplay the results, emphasizing that this is the first year and that this is a long-term process, when first-year results are usually the best in turnaround attempts?  This is all frighteningly similar to decades of previous turnaround work: Lots of spending, disappointing results, downplaying of data, requests for more time and money, repeat.

Third, the opportunity costs of this latest failed turnaround venture are enormous.  Imagine if these BILLIONS had been instead spent on new school starts, replications and expansions of great charters, and high-quality authorizing.  The experience of the Charter School Growth Fund, the best CMOs, CREDO’s research on New Orleans and New York City, and much more show that this is by far a better path for growing the number of high-quality seats.

All in all, this is the question the reform community should be asking itself:  If you were given a discrete set of resources (for example, $500,000, one great principal, and 20 great teachers) and told to maximize the number of high-quality seats available to disadvantaged kids, would you invest in (A) a “turnaround” effort of a long-dysfunctional school embedded in a long-dysfunctional district with decades of failed practices and policies, constraining labor contracts, and adult-centered politics or (B) a new-start charter strategy or expansion effort of an existing high-performing charter network that operate outside of traditional politics and policies and can build new approaches to instruction, human capital, and school culture?

I’d choose (B) every day of the week and twice on Sundays.  Evidently I’m still on the fringes.  But until I see a single high-performing urban district or one convincing example of a great, large-scale, sustainable failing-school turnaround strategy, I’ll just keep repeating the following: The traditional urban school district is broken, it cannot be fixed, it must be replaced.”

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