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The White House's new approach amounts to Extreme Makeover: School Edition. Fire the teachers and principals, turn schools into charters, lengthen the day and year, or shut the schools down completely and send the kids elsewhere. These so-called turnaround strategies which aim to increase test scores, decrease dropout rates and improve classroom culture in short order are perhaps the most ambitious part of President Obama's education-reform agenda. But it's a high-risk intervention. "This is like telling doctors to pick patients with the most advanced forms of cancer and make them better," says Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy.
So how often does rapid transformation work? In 2008, the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's research arm, published a guide to turning around low-performing schools that noted that "the research base on effective strategies ... is sparse." In other words, taxpayers are betting billions of dollars on what essentially remains a crapshoot.
Keep the Kids; Bring In New Adults
All that said, few would argue with the proposition that radical steps are needed to fix the country's public schools. Champions of the turnaround approach say that where it has been applied properly, the early results are encouraging. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has cited Mastery Charter Schools as a shining example of how to right a capsized ship. So far, Mastery has used the same approach at each of the three schools it has taken over from the School District of Philadelphia since 2006: retain the students, spiff up the place, and bring in new teachers and administrators.
Mastery has already increased test scores by double digits in each school, partially through a "no excuses" philosophy that stresses personal discipline as much as academics. Students noticed the attitude change immediately. "They really brought down the hammer," says Samuel Cowans, a 17-year-old Shoemaker student who was at the school when the weekly food fights and daily brawls gave way to uniforms and silent halls. Now a combined middle and high school, Shoemaker requires students to turn in their homework at the beginning of each day.
Duncan has been a big proponent of turnarounds since his days as head of the Chicago Public Schools. There, he shuttered 38 schools between 2001 and 2006, many of those low performing. Parents, teachers and neighborhood activists erupted in outrage with each closing, claiming that the system was giving up on their kids, disrespecting teachers and dismantling an integral part of the community. Violence flared when students from rival neighborhoods were thrown together. After a few years, Duncan switched tacks, keeping kids in their local schools but replacing teachers and staff.
The Chicago school closings are now acknowledged to have been largely unsuccessful. An October 2009 study by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded that most students from shuttered schools did not see any improvement in education quality, mainly because they ended up at schools that were as bad as the ones they had just left. Several turnarounds same kids, new adults did show noticeable gains, however, according to a recent Chicago Tribune analysis of city schools. But on the whole, the experiment was a mixed bag.