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Report: Only one percent of ‘bad’ schools turn around

A lot of attention is being given to the idea of school “turnarounds” lately–the concept of taking a poorly performing school and drastically changing the staff, curricula, or other elements in an effort to make it much better. But a study out Tuesday underlines just how hard it is to actually turn around a failing school, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The study, “Are Bad Schools Immortal?,” examined more than 2,000 of the worst-performing district and charter schools in 10 states over five years. It found that very few of them closed, and even fewer–about 1 percent–truly “turned around.”

 “So far, [turnarounds] happen rarely and unsystematically,” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which released the study. “And nobody to my knowledge has a proven recipe for making it happen in a reliable or predictable or scalable way…. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

That may be bad news for the Obama administration, which is investing some $3.5 billion in school-improvement grants to try to address America’s chronically bad schools. The money can be used in four ways, which include smaller steps–such as replacing the principal, adding time to the school day, and changing curricula. There are also more-drastic steps like closing a school, reopening it as a charter, or implementing a turnaround model in which most of the staff is replaced and a new principal is given increased autonomy. But the study comes with some caveats, including the fact that those more-extreme turnaround models have only recently been getting more attention. They were tried very little in the time period (2003-2009) that the study examined.

“We haven’t actually been investing resources in this question for very long,” says Justin Cohen, president of Mass Insight Education’s School Turnaround Group in Boston. “We’ve been spending a lot of money on light-touch stuff…. I think the conclusion you should draw from this is that you need to try something dramatic.”

Some chronically poor-performing schools probably do need to be closed, Mr. Cohen acknowledges. But others, he believes, can turn around quickly if important elements are truly changed and not just tweaked. And to be successful, he says, districts can’t shy away from political lightning rods such as changing collective-bargaining agreements or the terms of employment for administrators…

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