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Every Now and Then I Fall Apart

A sobering report released yesterday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that most of 2,000 schools identified as low-performing in 2002-03 were still low-performing schools 6 years later. Just 1.4% of district-run schools and less than 1% of charter schools identified as low-performing in 2002-03 "turned around" to the extent that they out-performed state averages by 2008-09; another 8% of district schools and 9% of charter schools made "moderate" improvements to the extent that their performance became merely mediocre rather than disastrous. And 11% of low-performing district schools and 19% of low-performing charter schools were closed. That leaves 80% of low-performing district schools and 72% of low-performing charters still open and low-performing six years later.

Key takeaways are pretty obvious: Turnarounds, in either the charter or district sector, do happen, but they are extremely rare and difficult to replicate. Schools in either sector are more likely to be closed than to make significant improvements--but not very likely to do either. Low-performing charter schools are substantially more likely to be closed down than low-performing district schools. But a 1 in 5 closure rate for the very worst schools still doesn't match the rhetoric of charter school advocates that "charter schools are more accountable because they can be shut down if they don't perform."

This may change though, in the future, as authorizers get more sophisticated about accountability and states get more serious about authorizing quality. Fordham identified significant differences among states in the rate at which the worst performing charters are closed down. Low-performing charter schools in Florida and Arizona were more likely to be closed down in other states. These findings should be taken with a grain of salt, though, because the numbers of schools in each state are relatively small and Fordham did not analyze the causes of charter school closures--some schools may have closed due to financial improprieties or non-viability, for example, rather than low-performance. Texas had both a very high percentage of charter schools that are low-performing (30% of Texas charters are low-performing) and a very low rate of closures of these schools (only 11% of the lowest performing Texas charters were closed). This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the situation in Texas, where the state's primary authorizer, the Texas Education Agency, has limited resources relative to the scope of its authorizing role, and chronically low-performing charter schools have contested revocations in court.

Improving charter school performance nationally is going to require authorizers to close down more low-performing schools. There's a perception among some observers that this is simply a matter of authorizer will, but there are other issues that need to be addressed if authorizers are going close down substantial numbers of schools, including strengthening legislation in some states to ensure that authorizers are able to close down low-performers on academic grounds, ensuring that authorizers have the legal resources and support to sustain closures when schools contest their charters' revocations in court, and providing resources and capacity for successful dissolution of low-performing schools and placement of their students in new schools.

Fordham argues that the poor track record of successful school turnarounds suggests a need for more emphasis on school closures. But such closures are currently highly disruptive for families and sometimes larger systems that must absorb the students from closed schools, because our system isn't built to support turnover in the supply of schools. Increasing the frequency with which low-performing schools (district or charter) close will require putting in place new supports and structures to ensure successful school dissolution and reallocation of schools' assets, as well as support the transitions of children and families to new schools.

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