Superman has arrived and he takes Visa.
As districts get more and more desperate trying to reach 100% proficiency by 2014, they begin to turn to a new breed of ‘experts.’ These experts claim that they hold the secrets to turning around failing schools. Proving that ‘poverty is not destiny’ with case studies of successful turnarounds, they command fees in the millions if not the ten-millions. I’ve recently investigated several alleged ‘turnarounds’ and have concluded that these turnaround companies are opportunist slime, stealing from the rich and giving to themselves.
One such turnaround company called Mass Insight got $75 million from six states in 2010 to lead the turnaround of their failing schools. I looked through their website to try to learn what their secret methods were. On their School Turnaround Group section they list eight successful ‘turnarounds’ from around the country. Ironically, these eight ‘turnarounds’ were led by companies other than Mass Insight, but as Mass Insight doesn’t seem to want to put its own record up to scrutiny, they use these case studies to show the sorts of strategies that Mass Insight employs in its own turnarounds. I investigated the eight schools and posted detailed results on my miracle schools wiki.
A genuine ‘turnaround’ is when the leader, the staff, or both are retrained or replaced while the students in the school remain the same. As a result of the changes in the ‘adults’ the school achieves rapid improvement as defined by standardized test scores.
I was pretty easily able to find flaws in seven of the eight turnarounds.
1) Bronx International High School in New York had a lot of attrition and very low test scores. As far as academic rigor, their average SAT score was 1010. This was a bad score when it was out of 1600, but now that it is out of 2400, this is absolutely horrific. You get 750 for just writing your name on the test! I also noticed that the only Math regents their students took was the 9th grade Algebra regents. Not one student took Geometry or Algebra II / Trigonometry. How this could be considered a turnaround is beyond me.
2) McDaniel Elementary School in Philadelphia was one of twelve schools that was given a new leader but the staff was permitted to remain. Of the twelve schools, eleven of them did not improve. McDaniels did, but Mass Insight, in their own study admits that McDaniel’s situation was unique:
“McDaniel’s performance appears to be partly attributed to factors not within the control of the CEO District program and not easily replicable – factors such as a charismatic principal, a (separate) grant-funded data staff position for the first turnaround year, and a fortuitous building renovation not part of the turnaround plan.”
It is interesting that they got a supposed turnaround without firing their staff. If it is possible to do it that way, why not always do that?
3) Dugan Middle School in Springfield Massachusetts got rid of 70% of their staff for their turnaround. Their math scores shot up from 4% to 14% in just two years! … but then went back down to 10%. And this is despite the fact that their demographics changed drastically leaving them with a much ‘easier’ group of kids. Title I went from 97% down to 75%. ELL went from 13% down to 4%.
That they would hail a school that hasn’t cracked 20% proficiency as a ‘turnaround’ means they are not using a definition most people would agree on.
4) Harvard Elementary School in Chicago is the only one I wasn’t able to crack. Their test scores are still below the average for their district and state, but they are greatly improved. One thought I have is that an elementary school ‘turnaround’ is probably more feasible than a middle or a high school one. I can imagine a very rare scenario where the school is under preforming because of an incompetent staff. I stress that this would be very rare — certainly not 25 schools a year like in New York City. I don’t have a lot of details about who the kids were before and after the transformation, but their scores have increased.
5) Locke High School in Los Angeles has been studied a lot. A company called Green Dot organized the turnaround. But despite spending fifteen million dollars, their test scores are some of the worst in the state of California. Their graduation rate has improved, as has their school culture. Maybe this school is improving, but it would be an overstatement to call it a successful turnaround.
6) Newton Street School in Massachusetts was declared a turnaround after just one year, despite their scores going down in several categories. With two more years of data after the Mass Insight report was written, I found that their scores are still as low or lower in 7th grade English and math as they were pre-turnaround.
7) Pickett Middle School in Philadelphia. They got their English and math scores up, but they only got 16% passing science compared to 58% for the state. This is a good indication of targeted test prep on English and math.
8) Science Academy in New Orleans is the craziest case study of them all. It was a new school so it doesn’t qualify as a ‘turnaround’ since there is no ‘before’ to compare it to. Though it has the best scores in the Recovery School District, the population it serves is quite different as they have about 50% free lunch while the average for the rest of the RSD is over 90%.
So of the eight case studies, I found flaws with seven of them. The fact is that Mass Insight really has no idea about what strategies might work and what won’t. Turnarounds, in general, are rarely successful because they are based on an assumption that the ‘adults’ are not doing their jobs. This is why KIPP failed miserably at their one attempt to turn around Cole Middle School in Denver. When they failed, they said that it was because they couldn’t find the proper leader. What ever happened to ‘No Excuses’? New York City prefers to shut down and reopen, probably because it is much easier to make a failure look like a success that way.
What is amazing is that the failures of these turnarounds actually proves one of two things: 1) That they really have no idea how to turn around schools or 2) That poverty is, indeed, destiny. If these experts can’t turn around the school, then perhaps the school can’t be turned around. In my opinion they proved both. This does not mean, though, that we give up trying to improve schools — just that we have a realistic picture of what is reasonable, and how ineffective many radical approaches are, like firing the staff of a school. Certainly this company does not deserve $75 million.
For Mass Insight and other ‘middle man’ companies to get rich by claiming they have the secret to turnarounds is just taking advantage of the system. The money they pocket is money that was intended to help kids who are struggling. Stealing money from needy kids is about as low as you can go.