Do Turnarounds Work?

By Del Stover

As troubled schools go, Edmund A. Burns Elementary School in Charleston County, S.C., is hardly the worst in the nation. Yet, after years of disappointing test scores, the 480-student school recently was sentenced to the ultimate penalty of today’s accountability movement: It was restructured -- the principal replaced and the rest of the staff, from teachers to secretaries, forced to reapply for their jobs.

It was an unpalatable measure, but district officials saw no better option. For almost two decades, they’d worked to turn the school around, yet despite every effort, it consistently failed to reach Adequate Yearly Progress goals. Nearly half of its students read below grade level, test scores were stagnant, and principals came and went in rapid succession.

So the proverbial boom finally fell. Says school board Chair Ruth Jordan: “When you have decades of no significant improvement, you need to do something drastic.”

Such resolve is commendable, but this tough-love talk also is hauntingly familiar. For decades, school leaders have announced bold and exciting initiatives to turn around low-achieving schools -- only for these efforts to prove to be an empty promise.

So why should this time be any different? 

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