Why Do We Know So Little About Turning Schools Around?

Mar 13th, 2011

Why Do We Know So Little About Turning Schools Around?

By: David N Plank | 11:03 AM | Categories: School & District Reform

“Turning around schools is challenging work,” according to Alan Daly, and knowledge about how the process works is in short supply.  (See here).  The fact that we know so little about how to improve student achievement in persistently low-performing schools is one of the enduring shames of the education research community.
 
Why do we know so little?  There are three related reasons.  First, there’s no strong pressure to learn more, because our lack of knowledge comports nicely with the prevailing conventional wisdom.  The large majority of schools where achievement is low enroll mostly poor and mainly black and Latino students.  The fact that some of these schools are unusually effective in raising student achievement (as Ron Edmonds first demonstrated more than four decades ago, and EdTrust and others have repeatedly confirmed) is accepted as proof that a school’s success or failure in boosting student achievement is the responsibility of local educators, and not of the state or the broader society.  If principals and teachers do the right things and not the wrong things, as their colleagues in unusually effective schools do, then all will be well.  “Just do it” sums up the guidance that we provide to educators faced with the challenge of turning around low-performing schools.
 
Second, we have focused our attention on the wrong questions.  Since 1965 scholars and policy-makers have devoted enormous effort to identifying schools that succeed with otherwise disadvantaged pupils, in an effort to determine how they differ from less successful schools.  After nearly 50 years and hundreds of studies the answers are clear:  unusually effective schools feature strong leadership, shared vision, parent engagement, frequent assessment and use of assessment data, and teacher collaboration.  Knowing that these attributes are present in unusually effective schools is quite different from knowing how to introduce them into schools where they are currently lacking, however, and we know almost nothing about that.
 
This leads directly to the third reason:  learning how to turn around persistently low-performing schools would be both difficult and costly.  Instead of asking what differentiates effective from ineffective schools, we should be asking how ineffective schools become more effective over time.  This would require systematic experimentation and careful evaluation over several years, to learn what works and what doesn’t, and under what circumstances.  A recent book by Tony Bryk and his colleagues, Organizing Schools for Improvement, provides a revelatory look at the process of school improvement in a number of Chicago schools, but the duration and complexity of the research project on which the book is based leaves one pessimistic as to whether it is likely to be replicated any time soon.
 
Sadly, California squandered a similar research opportunity with QEIA.  (See here).  With $3 billion to invest in school turnarounds we had a chance to learn a lot about how schools move from ineffectiveness to effectiveness, but we decided not to take it.  Now, having learned very little, we are left to offer our schools some familiar advice as turnaround season approaches:  “Just do it.”