Turn around a failing school, or start a new one? Yes.

December 16, 2010
Students at Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter School Shoemaker campus in 2007. —Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer

In 2005, Shoemaker Middle School in tough west Philadelphia was a place the police knew too well. Its violence rate was staggering: 8 assaults for every 100 students, including attacks on teachers and a police officer. So, when a pair of beat cops strolled by in the fall of 2006 and found the school silent, they tried the doors, figuring it must have suddenly been closed.

But the school hadn’t closed. It had changed. Far from being abandoned, it was fuller than ever of children—reading, solving equations, and raising their hands to answer teachers’ questions. Scholarship had replaced disorder. Violence plummeted, and every indicator of learning had arced sharply upward. In short, it’s exactly the kind of change that a thoughtful new Fordham Institute study says we’re seeing way too little of at schools that desperately need changing.

What caused the sudden change at Shoemaker? A set of conditions that will matter more and more as we come to grips with the difficulty of turning around chronically bad schools. Philadelphia put the school in the hands of an outside nonprofit organization, Mastery Charter Schools, and gave Mastery wide management autonomy in exchange for strict accountability for students’ learning. Mastery led a fundamental shakeup of leadership, staff, culture and practice; the existing students remained but nearly everything else changed. The deal paid off for Shoemaker’s children; three years later, the school, once among the state’s worst, now vies with suburban schools in math and reading.

The Fordham study argues that, rather than embarking on the difficult work of turning around a failing school, we should put all our energy into starting excellent new schools in the same neighborhoods to give families better options. A strategy that creates new and better options is of enormous value, but we question why this is an either-or. With new organizations starting to demonstrate the possibilities of high-impact turnaround work, we argue for a two-pronged strategy: start excellent new schools, but also help to create the conditions for school turnaround and increase the supply of organizations ready and capable to do the work.

The stakes are huge here. The worst-performing “dropout factories” carry much of the blame for a crisis in which nearly half of students in the nation’s largest cities fail to complete high school, and where low-income students are one-sixth as likely as high-income students to complete college. A recent McKinsey & Co. report concluded that the education gaps caused by such failing schools “impose on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,” estimating the impact at $700 billion.

If we are to achieve a record different from the dismal one highlighted by Fordham, it will require an aggressive expansion of the public-private partnerships that are proving powerful in bringing this desperately needed change. It comes as welcome news, then, that a small but growing cadre of school management organizations have begun to crack the code of dramatic school change.

That code involves unwavering accountability for students’ learning in combination with control over the key factors–such as hiring and firing and the length of the school day.  

Given that combination, Mastery has demonstrated that new leadership, excellent teachers, a culture of high expectations, and a rigorous curriculum can dramatically and quickly alter the education trajectories for students who have languished in failing schools. In doing so, Mastery and other pioneers like the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) have proven that an outside entrepreneurial organization can systematically and repeatedly turn schools around. A host of other organizations are springing up that embody similar principles, and we have every reason to hope for similar impact. (NewSchools works closely with turnaround organizations including Mastery and AUSL, helping them to grow with funding and management assistance.)

Under labels such as reconstitution, schools-within-schools, small schools, and “zones” of autonomy and empowerment, recent decades have seen many attempts at turnaround, but few have yielded repeated success. In part, this is because essential elements of autonomy and accountability that made possible a sharp break with the existing system were missing or abandoned.

Perhaps as a consequence, in the search for rapid and dramatic change, the momentum in effective turnaround today belongs to nonprofits that work in partnership with school districts. The problem is that there are far too few such organizations. To change the odds that Fordham rightly laments, this country ought to work on two tracks, continuing to support the start up of new schools and investing in the growth of organizations like Mastery. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan says, “More of the same incremental change, tinkering around the edges, is not going to work. We need a dramatic overhaul.”

– Jordan Meranus