The Hassels: Don't turn our backs on turnarounds yet

Guest Blogger

This post, written by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel of Public Impact, is a response to Andy Smarick's June 25 post about turnarounds.

Andy Smarick's June 25 post "IES and turnarounds" makes the case against trying to turn around existing failing public schools. Instead, he says, we should put all our eggs in the basket of starting new schools.?? His rationale? The lack of gold-standard studies that show what makes turnarounds successful.?? Hmmm . . . what if we had applied that thinking at the dawn of chartering?

He misses the main point: turnarounds (bad-to-great transformations, typically with a new leader) and start-ups sometimes work--in other sectors and, it turns out, in schools. We don't have perfect knowledge of the "why," but we know more in both cases than Andy lets on.

It's true: most of the research on successful turnarounds come from case studies of successful efforts to fix failing organizations, without a rigorous control group methodology.?? But the same goes for the new-school startups that Andy (and we) find so enchanting.?? We're not aware of gold-standard studies that definitively prove what makes KIPP, Achievement First, and the other high-flyers tick. What we have instead is, you guessed it, case studies of successful efforts without rigorous controls.

The good news is that in both the turnaround and new-school cases, the case study research reveals a remarkable consistency in the ingredients of successful efforts.?? Turnarounds happen all the time across sectors, and effective turnaround leaders seem to take a set of common actions that we documented in the Education Next article Andy cites.?? Similarly, successful charter schools appear to have a set of qualities that have been documented in numerous books and articles.

Now, we could wait five years so that someone could complete gold-standard studies before we start any new charter schools or try any turnarounds.?? Meanwhile, millions of kids would be stuck in failing schools. We think it's better to use the imperfect knowledge we have to launch as many great new schools and as many successful turnarounds as we can while the researchers work on the next generation of knowledge.

It's important to be honest with ourselves: most of these efforts, both turnaround and new schools, are likely to fail.?? Some experts think 70% of major business change efforts fall short.?? Start-up failure rates are similar, and charter schools are no exception. Most charter schools aren't like the high-flyers Andy cites: they get results that are at best similar to their peer schools and often worse (ditto for turnaround efforts).

But if we know this going in, we can succeed with portfolios of new schools and turnarounds even if a lot of the specific efforts fail.?? The key is this: Try, try again, and quickly. Close charter schools that don't measure up, and re-try failed turnarounds with new leadership.?? Even if individual tries are successful only 20-30% of the time, we can achieve a much better cumulative success rate by rapidly trying again when first attempts fall short.

Finally, why deploy both strategies, rather than just committing to "new schools" like Andy recommends??? Here's the problem:?? if you take all the superstar new school networks Andy mentions plus a few others, they're collectively planning to open perhaps 150-200 new schools over the next five years.?? Let's say there's an equivalent number of other new successful start-ups that could emerge from beyond these networks. That adds up to 300-400 schools over five years.?? But what about the kids in the other 4,600-4,700 abysmal public schools nationwide??? Are we going to write them off by clinging to a new-schools-only ideology when another option that has often succeeded in other sectors is available?

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