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The Turnaround Dilemma: Convert or Close Down?


The report out last week on the results of a study looking at Chicago's efforts to close down failing schools got me thinking. In its study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research examined the impact on students of shutting down 18 chronically low-performing elementary schools in the Windy City. (Check out my colleague Dakarai Aarons' article on the study, if you haven't already.) The bottom line, according to this study, was that the students who were displaced by the closings just ended up at other low-performing schools in the district. Their achievement, as measured by test scores, did not improve all that much, compared to that of students who continued to attend similarly low-performing schools.

The findings are important because Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who presided over the turnaround efforts in Chicago, is pushing a similar effort at the national level. Districts won't be required to close down schools to qualify for the new federal turnaround grants, but it's clear from the draft guidelines issued so far that the federal government really likes that approach.

That means school superintendents faced with failing schools have a difficult choice to make: Transform the schools or shut them down and start from scratch? Over at the Institute for Research and Reform in Education, founder Jim Connell has developed a simulation tool to help school superintendents chip away at that question.

First off, you should know that the nonprofit institute has a little skin in this game. It developed the First Things First program for improving high schools—a strategy that has historically tended to focus on converting existing high schools.

For argument's sake, though, let's play along. Imagine that you're a superintendent of a 14,300-student district and you want to boost the on-time graduation rates in your five lowest-performing high schools by 20 percent within five years. Would it be better to replace the schools or convert them? You could get some idea by plugging data about your schools into the spreadsheet that Connell developed based on his experience with First Things First schools. If the replacement schools enrolled 200 students a year, the calculator would tell you, it would take 11 new schools to match the success rate that you could get from transforming the existing schools instead.

That figure is based on lots of assumptions, of course, some of which may not apply in every district. Connell explains the thinking behind his analytic tool in a paper soon to be posted on the IRRE Web site. Contact him directly to try the calculator out for free.

UPDATE: I now have a link for Connell's paper, if you're looking for it. You can find it here. Also, just to clarify, the example above is hypothetical. It wasn't actually computed with the calculator but it gives you some idea of the kind of information the new tool might yield.


Let me guess--transforming schools almost always comes out first, and the First Things First model is at the top of the list. First Things First has been a DISASTER in Texas. But good marketing can overcome reality any day of the week.

Bill, I am a Research Associate with IRRE who worked on this paper with Jim Connell. I think once you read the paper - now posted on our website at: http://irre.org/pdf_files/Apples_to_Apples_Approach_11-3-09_FINAL.pdf - you will see that this is intended to be a contribution to federal, state, district, and school leaders to help make clearer the difficult choices they face in deciding how best to turnaround their lowest performing schools. Rather than an advertisement for First Things First (which is not mentioned in the paper), this paper seeks to illuminate and facilitate conversations about two approaches to high school turnaround. The data used in the paper, do however, come from schools in Texas implementing First Things First strategies - and therefore, I hope that you will incorporate the hard work and significant progress of our partners in Texas into your assessment of First Things First's contributions to high school improvement there.

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  • Todd Lacher: Bill, I am a Research Associate with IRRE who worked read more
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