How to Turn Schools Around

By Frederick M. Hess and Thomas Gift

Educational reformers are abuzz over school “turnarounds,” a simple idea with undeniable appeal. Turnarounds offer the opportunity to take familiar educational institutions and improve them through coaching, mentoring, capacity building, best practices, and other existing tools.

Today, in the No Child Left Behind era, the notion that turnarounds constitute a new, better way to solve the problems facing America’s schools is gaining immense popularity among reformers of all stripes. The reason? Unlike most reform efforts, which focus on incremental improvement, turnarounds seek to take schools from bad to great within a short period.

In 2005-06, about 600 schools -- about 90 percent in large urban districts -- officially began turnaround programs. Nearly 2,000 schools were predicted to be in turnaround modes in 2007-08 and more than 3,200 in 2008-09, according to a 2007 report from the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute in Boston.

Scholars and practitioners are seeking to answer this demand -- and, in some cases, helping to fuel expectations. The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education has developed an academic and cocurricular program designed to instruct experts charged with turning around consistently low-performing schools. Run jointly with the university’s Darden School of Business, the program takes hybrid 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 11 campuses, has launched ChicagoRise, saying that specialized teaching staffs and dynamic management practices are essential to improving chronically low-performing public schools in the nation’s third-largest district. The Louisiana School Turnaround Specialist Program seeks to recruit, assemble, and groom leaders to turn around failing campuses. In New York, the Rensselaerville Institute’s School Turnaround contracts out turnaround experts and offers money-back guarantees for partner schools that fail to reach achievement goals.

Given their good intentions, it is hard not to root for these reformers and shower them with support and resources. Yet while turnarounds are doubtlessly an appealing idea, making them work is far more complicated. 

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