Last week the Columbus Dispatch featured a story about the worst-performing middle school in Ohio, Champion Middle School located on Columbus’s near east side. Its achievement results on 2009-10 state tests are appalling: 11 percent of seventh graders passed the state math test; less than one in three seventh graders reached proficiency in reading; just 10 percent of eight graders were proficient in science. The school’s disciplinary statistics – there were 2,300 instances of “discipline” last year alone – are more reminiscent of a prison than a middle school.

And its dysfunction is chronic. Only 23 percent of sixth graders at Champion a decade ago (2000-01) were proficient in reading; last year that figure was just above 26 percent. Math scores among sixth graders have actually fallen – from 33 percent in 2000-01 to just 23 percent last year. Such low achievement spanning over a decade prompts us to wonder: At what point does this kind of unremitting failure represent educational malpractice?

The school attempted a turnaround five years ago – it brought in a new principal, mostly new staff, and built a brand-new facility. The overhaul failed, not unlike the experience of nearly all Ohio school turnaround attempts. Terry chronicled this in a piece for the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Hope, Fears, & Reality: A balanced look at American charter schools in 2009:

Many of the efforts to restructure troubled [Ohio] schools under NCLB have been half-hearted at best, and have led to little real change as most districts have treated this sanction more as a paper compliance exercise than a real opportunity to force dramatic changes in their schools.

From 2004 to 2009, Ohio and its schools spent $48 million dollars in turnaround efforts, yet few if any of the turnaround schools improved.  In part this is because, as the Columbus Dispatch reported last year, “Statewide, and in Columbus, the most popular [turnaround] option has been to change the principal and some or all of the teachers, and try new curricula.” 

Despite failed efforts and tens of millions of public dollars down the drain, Ohio hasn’t changed course when it comes to overhauling its worst schools. The Columbus City Schools are getting a second chance to try to fix Champion, this made possible by approximately $3 million from federal School Improvement Grants (Columbus received $20.2 million to turnaround seven schools). What will the school overhaul entail this time? It’s virtually identical to what has already been tried (and failed) over the last decade. The proposed changes – bringing in a new principal (from another failing middle school in Columbus), adding technology, reducing class size, etc. are commonly applied strategies to school improvement, but there’s no evidence that any of these moves actually improve broken schools.

It’s nothing short of scandalous that the feds and the state are allocating yet more taxpayer dollars to the Columbus City Schools to try and fix a broken school using the same tired reform strategy that has already failed a generation of young people.

It’s even more appalling in light of the fact that Champion has a lot of company across the state. There are 257 public schools in Ohio serving 170,000 children that have been deemed by the state as in need of corrective action for five or more years (this represents six years of missing Adequate Yearly Progress).  Of this group of chronic underperformers are 18 schools (Champion ranks among them) that have needed major restructuring for 9 or 10 years – basically ever since the No Child Left Behind Act installed AYP and the concept of corrective action. These schools collectively serve 17,100 students. That’s thousands of kids, and their siblings, who for the last decade attended the very worst of the worst public schools. And other than labeling them in need of overhaul, Ohio has done little more than reshuffle existing programs and line items that perpetuate the status quo. The schools and children have largely been left to languish in despair. If this isn’t the definition of malpractice, we don’t know what is.

Under School Improvement Grant guidelines, schools may select one of several turnaround options, including closure or “restart” (possibly under a proven charter management organization, like Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia that has turned around some of that city’s most violent, underperforming schools). But as we’ve noted previously, most SIG-winning schools select less rigorous turnaround options, typically opting for soft transformation from within. Rarely do school districts fire themselves and hire outsiders to try to fix what they haven’t been able to do for themselves. They just do more of the same-- with the same basic human capital, same culture of “easy does it,” and simple optimism that things will somehow get better. It’s time for a far bolder approach.

Successful school turnarounds are one of the rarest feats in American public education. It is for that reason that then-Fordham fellow Andy Smarick argued for embracing school closures in an Education Next piece a year ago:

Those hesitant about replacing turnarounds with closures should simply remember that a failed business doesn’t indict capitalism and an unseated incumbent doesn’t indict democracy. Though temporarily painful, both are essential mechanisms for maintaining long-term system wide quality, responsiveness, and innovation. Closing America’s worst urban schools doesn’t indict public education nor does it suggest a lack of commitment to disadvantaged students. On the contrary, it reflects our insistence on finally taking the steps necessary to build city school systems that work for the boys and girls most in need.

But to close schools (an undeniably controversial approach), Ohio needs a broader turnaround plan and should pursue a three-part approach. 

First, accept that some schools are simply unfixable and need to be shuttered. Rather than letting these schools languish for a decade or more, the state needs to encourage or even force legislative changes that would close the most long-suffering public schools and disperse these children to other schools in the community. Ohio has legislation that requires the closure of the state’s lowest performing charters and this should be extended to district schools as well. No child should be stuck without hope in a failed school.

We've learned from the charter movement that closing failed schools is better for their children than leaving them in a hopeless situation. Fordham knows this first-hand as we have in fact closed two schools and seen children go to other buildings. It goes without saying that these were very tough decisions, but we recognize that closure is sometimes truly the lesser of evils.

The second part of Ohio’s turnaround approach should be assisting districts to develop a workable triage strategy for determining which schools are salvageable and which should close, what data will be used to inform those decisions, and what non-achievement variables should factor into closure decisions (e.g., declining enrollment). This is not a skill set many school district officials possess, nor is it a skill set taught through traditional education programs. The business world is far more familiar with things like closing branch offices and the like and this experience should be applied to schools.

Third, we need a new leadership model for school turnaround experts. More troubled schools might be salvageable if we can bring a new breed of leadership to bear on the school turnaround effort. Without clear and consistent leadership, turnaround efforts fall apart quickly. Researchers and turnaround advocates know this, and this is why administrators in the Chicago school system, for instance, have focused so much attention on finding and developing high-quality school leaders and teachers who are trained to work in a school turnaround environment. This is akin to training nurses and doctors to work in big city emergency rooms or in combat zones. These are professionals with special training and temperament. Having a plan for reform is important, but equally or more important is having a team in place that can implement the plan effectively and see it through its conclusion.

Innovative school leadership programs already are taking root and expanding across the country, ones that train leaders specifically to work in the most troubled schools (examples include New Leaders for New Schools and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, among many). In fact, UVA’s turnaround specialist program has played an important role in some of Cincinnati Public Schools’ recent successes in lifting achievement at perennially underperforming elementary schools.

If Ohio hopes to salvage some of its most troubled schools, it should encourage such programs to develop in Ohio (top-flight business schools here could get into the school repair business) that train school leaders to both launch successful charter schools and turn around troubled schools.  Instead of channeling money into loose and unproven turnaround models through School Improvement Grants, federal dollars could be applied to launching new models of school leadership training – not exclusively own and operated by schools of education – that focus on the unique challenges of both school start-ups and turnarounds.

Ohio can no longer simply continue dumping more cash into failing schools and applying the same improvement strategies while using the same human capital. To continue this approach is like letting the most ineffective hospitals pay millions for large supplies of a drug that doesn’t work, leaving most doctors and staff in place, and then letting patients die of curable ailments. Educational malpractice – the likes of which has happened at Champion and too many other Ohio schools – is an injustice just as egregious.

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