Gadfly analysis: Charter start-ups vs. district turnarounds vs. closure

Earlier this month Fordham released an analysis in the
national Education Gadfly showing that when it comes to serving kids in the neediest
communities, charter school start-ups have a far greater chance (nearly quadruple) of success than a district
turnaround. David Stuit - who also authored Fordham’s recent study on the
dearth of successful school turnarounds: Are Bad Schools Immortal? – examined
select charter start-ups and district turnarounds in Ohio along with nine other
states to determine their chance of success (scoring above the state average).
He finds:

In most of the showdowns, the
charter start-ups emerged victorious. Of the eighty-one head-to-head matchups I
identified, 19 percent of the charter schools (i.e. fifteen schools) tested
above the state average in 2008-09, compared with 5 percent of district schools
(i.e. four schools).*

To be clear, Stuit’s definition of a “turnaround” is narrow
– “a school must have moved the needle on student achievement in both reading
and math from its state’s bottom decile to above the state average (from
2003-04 to 2008-09).” And he admits that “caveats abound”: the sample size in
this analysis was small; charter schools’ success rates may be overestimated
through selection bias; and there were loads of unsuccessful start-up charters
in his study that merit a whole separate policy conversation. (Read more about
the methodology and the limits of the study here
and here.)
Stuit concludes: 

When contemplating whether to put
one’s energy and resources into turning around failing schools or closing them
and replacing them with charter start-ups, the answer for most cities will
probably be “both, and” rather than “either, or.” … Reformers will need to get
a whole lot better at implementing both strategies
successfully lest all of this add up to “nothing much.”

School turnaround
landscape in Ohio

To be sure, the Buckeye State should be fostering room for
school turnarounds regardless of whether traditional school districts or CMOs
or one-off charter schools (or some yet-to-be created entities) are at the
helm. But, as Ohio moves forward in overhauling chronically failing schools –
precipitated not only by federal money (Race to the Top and School Improvement
Grants) but also by policies (such as those proposed by Gov. Kasich) – there
are at least three important facts to keep in mind that add nuance to the
school turnaround conversation.

School turnaround
work is extraordinarily difficult.
Fordham has witnessed firsthand
how even charter turnarounds – less hampered by external restraints on
innovation – can crash and burn. About one percent of schools Stuit studied
successfully turned themselves around. Despite the recent push for turnarounds,
the concept of school reconstitution dates back to the No Child Left Behind
Act, under which schools that persistently failed to make AYP were supposed to
undergo restructuring. Considering that nearly all such schools in Ohio
continue to languish a decade later – like Champion Middle School in Columbus,
which we’ve
chronicled
before – it doesn’t exactly inspire hope for the next go around.
Still, despite this poor track record, under the governor’s
budget 93 schools
(those ranked in the bottom five percent for three years)
would face reconstitution, about the same
number
that failed to make AYP and theoretically should have been
restructured successfully a few years ago. This isn’t to say that Ohio should
sit by idly and ignore its lowest performing schools – just a reminder that,
thus far at least, we don’t really know how to repair them.

Ohio’s turnaround
plan includes some inconsistencies.
The state’s biennial budget bill
stipulates that schools ranked in the lowest five percent of schools (according
to Performance Index score) for three years must face turnaround. Options
include closing the school and reassigning students; contracting with another entity
(district, non- or for-profit, etc.) to operate the school; replacing the
principal and all teaching staff; or re-opening the school as a conversion
charter. However, among the schools on the turnaround list – as identified by
the budget criteria – are 13 schools that received SIG grants totaling
$37,546,632. SIG turnaround options are far looser, and include options to keep
staff in place, or use professional development as the primary vehicle of
transformation. Would these 13 schools get to stick with their original SIG
turnaround plans or would their overhaul plans need to match those of the other
sanctioned schools across Ohio? Further, Ohio received a total of $132 million
in SIG money to implement turnarounds, but Ohio’s turnaround plan does not
provide funding for it. This isn’t to say that dumping millions of dollars into
failing schools will fix the problem (history tells us it likely won’t), but
the messaging on turnarounds coming from the federal and state levels is
inconsistent.

The human capital
challenge must be addressed for any hope of turnaround success.
School
turnaround success hinges on teacher and principal leadership. In our previous
analysis of Ohio’s turnaround plan, we asked:

Does Ohio have enough teaching and
leadership talent willing to take over 93 schools, or charter management groups
capable of taking some of them on?

Terry Ryan highlighted this fact in his chapter
for the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s “Hopes, Fears, and Reality” back in early 2010:

Having a plan for reform is
important, but equally or more important is having a team in place that can
implement the plan and see it through to its conclusion. As straightforward… as
this conclusion may be in theory, in practice it is hard for many mid-size
cities to act on it. There are simply not enough gifted school leaders and
teachers ready and willing to jump into the fray.

Some nationally renowned turnaround programs – like the
turnaround specialist training program at the University of Virginia – are at
work in Ohio schools; some Cincinnati
schools have already seen improvements with the help of this model, and several
Akron
schools will be helped by the program this year. But in recruiting
talent more broadly – charter management organizations capable of scaling up,
teachers to keep the pipeline full, and leaders to transform nearly 100 schools
– Ohio needs a serious plan.

Perhaps the most feasible strategy is to push hard for a
significant number of these schools to close. Closure is one of several options
allowed under Kasich’s budget and SIGs, and Stuit found in his original
analysis that Ohio did a decent job (more so than other states) of closing poor
performers rather than turning them around. Or – taking a cue from Louisiana, Tennessee,
and now possibly our neighbor
to the northwest – might the Buckeye State be better off with a coherent
turnaround plan driven by a single statewide school district overseeing the
bottom tier of schools (akin to New Orleans’ “Recovery School District”)? Such
innovative school governance options are untested in Ohio, but are they any
riskier than traveling down the same turnaround road, which – for the vast
majority of youngsters trapped in failure – has led to continued failure?

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