Research & Commentary: School Turnarounds

Published September 13, 2011

How to turn a failing school into a successful one has stumped educators and policy analysts for decades. Poorly performing schools—where few students graduate high school and many can barely read or perform basic math—have been notoriously difficult to turn around. Though the federal No Child Left Behind law stipulates several “turnaround” options for public schools deemed “failing” several years in a row, including mandated tutoring services, removing many teachers and administrators, and even closure, these options have had a spotty success record.

This has led some, such as education historian Diane Ravitch, to speculate that education policy reforms simply cannot change failing schools. These schools fail because of the abysmal conditions in communities feeding into them, Ravitch argues, and cannot be fixed without solving these root problems of poverty, social injustice, and dysfunction. The answer, she says, is a massive increase in federal and state spending aimed at this goal.

Others contend school turnarounds depend on better motivating teachers, administrators, parents, and students; instructing school staff in “best practices”; and increasing funding. Toward that end, the Obama administration has increased funding for School Improvement Grants and created an Office of School Turnarounds to direct billions of dollars to districts applying for those grants.

Research on the success of both methods is spotty at best, critics note. They point out the dominance of government tends to quash individual responsibility for the problems of failing schools. Market and consumer advocates note abundant proof that increasing tax money for schools has not improved academic achievement.

The most successful approaches so far have proven to be closing and reopening failing schools with mostly different staff; realigning educators’ incentives to emphasize student needs and outcomes; introducing competition to put pressure on poor performers; and giving wide administrative, teaching, and curricular flexibility as in the charter school model. Advocates of these approaches say the more freedom and choices parents, teachers, and administrators have, the more likely they all are to pursue students’ best interests, because they align with their own.

The following documents offer more information about school turnarounds.

School Turnarounds Get New Emphasis Within Ed. Dept.
The U.S. Department of Education in June 2011 created a new office to focus on school turnarounds, reports Education Week. Its duties are to administer $3.5 billion in federal School Improvement Grants. Reporter Michele McNeil notes the restructure demonstrated the importance of school turnarounds to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama administration.

Ind. Board of Education OKs Takeovers of 5 Schools
Private companies will operate five Indiana public schools slated for takeover by law because they’ve all recorded five years of abysmal performance, writes the Associated Press. The companies taking over are current charter school operators in Chicago, Florida, and Indiana. They will spend the next year assessing the schools before submitting plans to improve student achievement and safety. The graduation rate at one of the schools is 50 percent, and observers at other schools in the group noted finding children in classrooms with heads on their desks and teachers asking students no questions.

Kansas City School District Loses Leader Who Began Turnaround Effort
Former Kansas City schools superintendent John Covington is moving his turnaround strategy from one terrible school district to another: Detroit, The New York Times reports. In Kansas City, Covington brought in Teach for America teachers, closed nearly half the city’s public schools for failure and lack of students, balanced the district’s budget, and grouped students by skill instead of age.

And Now For Something Differentiated
Education analyst Andrew Rotherham describes the many loopholes available to schools failing under No Child Left Behind and notes schools are requesting waivers or ignoring the law’s requirements instead of taking the actions the law requires, such as replacing large numbers of teachers and administrators, converting to a charter school, or allowing private management to take over. He accuses the education sector of a lack of creativity and political will to make the hard choices in turning around failing schools.

Charter Schools Achieve Dramatic Turnarounds in LA, Philadelphia
Several failing schools converted into public charters have shown dramatic improvement, reports School Reform News. The federal No Child Left Behind law has offered $1.4 billion so far for school districts to implement turnarounds in failing schools, but few districts choose to convert failed schools into charters. Key elements for successful conversion include administrator freedom, experienced charter operators, and community support.

Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around the Nation’s Dropout Factories
Efforts to turn around the nation’s 5,000 worst-performing schools have had mixed results, and only 5 percent of schools receiving a School Turnaround Grant have chosen to convert to a charter school, writes Melissa Lazarin in a study for the Center for American Progress. Charter schools, however, offer significant promise for boosting student achievement—charter students are 7 to 15 percent more likely to graduate than students in traditional public schools. Several charter operators have good track records on turnarounds, she reports. The paper explores how charters have achieved successful turnarounds and could increase the number of schools served.

School Turnarounds: Resisting the Hype, Giving Them Hope
Turning around any failed institution is “an iffy proposition,” note Frederick Hess and Thomas Gift in an American Enterprise Institute study, as lessons from the business world suggest. But this does not mean turnarounds are impossible, the authors say. Important elements of success include financial and personnel-related freedom for administrators, the liberty to overhaul staff, an all-or-nothing approach instead of incremental change, and establishment of high goals for teachers while allowing flexibility in how they accomplish them.

What Are the Best Methods for School Improvement?
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, writes in National Journal that of all the varied attempts to fix failing schools, giving parents meaningful choices is the least politically correct—but most likely to produce results. Instead of conferences, roundtables, expanded federal subsidies, reports, hearings, and meetings, she says, lawmakers should increase choice and responsibility and reduce obstacles to teacher certification and expansion of charter schools.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].