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.…Read More

Troubled urban school is turned around, but cost gives pause

Locke High School in Los Angeles has seen significant progress since it was taken over by a charter school group in 2008, but the gains have come at a considerable cost, reports the New York Times. As recently as 2008, Locke High School was one of the nation’s worst failing schools and drew national attention for its hallway beatings, bathroom rapes, and rooftop parties held by gangs. For every student who graduated, four others dropped out. Now, two years after a charter school group took over, gang violence is sharply down, fewer students are dropping out, and test scores have inched upward. Newly planted olive trees in Locke’s central plaza have helped transform the school’s concrete quadrangle into a place where students congregate and do homework. Locke High represents both the opportunities and challenges of the Obama administration’s $3.5 billion effort, financed largely by the economic stimulus bill, to overhaul thousands of the nation’s failing schools. The school has become a mecca for reformers, partly because the Education Department (ED) web site hails it as an exemplary turnaround effort. But progress is coming at considerable cost: an estimated $15 million over the planned four-year turnaround, largely financed by private foundations. That is more than twice the $6 million in federal turnaround money that ED has set as a cap for any single school. Skeptics say the Locke experience might be too costly to replicate…

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Smaller urban high schools found to boost achievement

New York City is not alone in seeking to engage students by opening small high schools.
New York City is not alone in seeking to engage students by opening small high schools.

With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has systematically shut down large, failing high schools and replaced them with small schools—many pegged to themes like technology or the business of sports. Now, a new study funded by the Gates Foundation suggests that the small schools have succeeded in boosting graduation rates for the city’s most academically challenged students.

Proponents of the smaller-schools approach to education reform say the schools can provide one-on-one support to struggling students, and the specialized programs are supposed to improve students’ motivation by enticing them to apply to schools that match their interests.

“This shows the strategy is working,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who since 2002 has shuttered more than 20 large high schools with as many as 4,000 students each and replaced them with 216 small schools with names like the Academy of Health Careers or the Law, Government, and Community Service Magnet High School.…Read More