Ignoring our own advice

A recent report from our colleagues at the Fordham Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Are Bad Schools Immortal?,
shows the folly of school turnaround efforts – only 1.4 percent of
district schools and less than 1 percent of charters that have undergone
turnaround efforts have done so successfully. And if the statistics
aren’t bleak enough, expert opinion is even gloomier.

Ronald Brady concluded in 2003 that “Success is not the norm…the
intervention experience is marked more by valiant effort than notable
success.” More recently, Andy Smarick, former Fordham staffer and now
senior official in New Jersey’s education department, spent a year
studying and reporting on the failure of school turnaround efforts and
concluded glumly, “The history of urban education tells us emphatically
that turnarounds are not a reliable strategy for improving our worst

Despite all this, in Ohio Fordham (which authorizes charter schools
in the Buckeye State) is working closely with board members of a Dayton
elementary charter school to try to turn that school around. The school
has failed to make any academic gains for the last three years.
Moreover, it could well face automatic closure under state law at the
end of the 2010-11 school year if it is again rated F and fails to make
growth in reading and math according to the state’s value-added metrics.

Why not just shutter this school? (It’s not because Fordham doesn’t have the spine to do it – we’ve closed schools before
and were a primary driver behind Ohio’s stringent charter-school
closure law.) But there are three compelling reasons Fordham is
struggling with a turnaround effort that is statistically doomed to

First, if the school closes, its 500 children would be tossed into a
sea of failure that provides them few better opportunities. More than 40
percent of the 14,000 children in Dayton’s K-8 schools (charter and
district) attend one that is rated F. Twenty-five percent attend a
school rated D; 28 percent attend one rated C; and just 5 percent of K-8
school age kids attend a school rated B. There is no public K-8 school
in Dayton rated A. Simply put, Dayton’s educational landscape is flooded
by low-quality schools.

Second, this snapshot is unlikely to change soon as there are no
signs the district schools are on a path toward improving and Dayton is
not a hotbed for high-quality charter start-ups. Some charter students
are served by local charter management organizations and some of the
national education management groups like National Heritage Academies
(NHA), Edison Learning, and Imagine Schools. The performance of these
models, at least in Dayton, is mixed. Dayton does not have any national
high-flyer models like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Building Excellent
Schools or Aspire, and none of these models seem excited about coming to
Dayton anytime soon.

Third, Fordham staff and board members believe that the people
involved at the board level and in the building can create a plan for a
turnaround that can work. The loyalty and commitment of those involved
is to the community and to the children in the school. The school has
recruited a crackerjack educator as school leader who has served as
principal of the city’s high-performing Catholic high school. Edison
Learning, which currently operates the school, has committed to helping
out any way that it can, even agreeing to leave the building entirely if
that is deemed the best solution by those on the ground. There is a
genuine commitment to making the school work.

Statistically speaking, this may not be enough, but in Dayton it’s
the best shot we’ve got. Everyone involved appreciates how hard a
turnaround is, but closing the building and walking away seems an even
worse option.

A version of this article first appeared on Flypaper, Fordham’s blog.