The Turnaround Trap

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Post submitted by Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.20021218_Hess

Even when everyone agrees change is essential, it is enormously difficult to change established institutions. I explore this point in depth in my forthcoming ASCD book Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling. It may be most relevant in the context of school “turnarounds”—a subject that is much in the news.

The Obama administration believes in turnarounds. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for turning around 5,000 low-performing schools in the next four years. The president has gone so far as to suggest that the efficacy of school turnaround is demonstrated by research. And, of course, the administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative places substantial weight on state assurances that they will turn around lots of low-performing schools. Good stuff, no?

Unfortunately, not. This is a case of good intentions gone awry. In two decades of experience with state takeovers of low-performing schools or districts, we’ve yet to see a clear success. Only a handful of providers, like Academy for Urban School Leadership, can perhaps tally a few dozen successes among them. By throwing a big slug of federal dollars and moral support behind self-promoters promising to turn around lots of schools, the administration is setting up a potentially reasonable idea as one more oversold fad, and making it likely we’ll waste a slew of dollars in the process.

Given the good intentions, it’s only natural to root for turnarounds. But, while the phrase “turnaround” may be relatively new to those in education, “silver bullet” enthusiasm has a long track record in other sectors. And that record makes the case for steely-eyed realism. Even in the business world, where management enjoys many more degrees of freedom, turnarounds are an iffy proposition. Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has observed,

“Failure to sustain significant change recurs again and again despite substantial resources committed to the change effort (many are bankrolled by top management), talented and committed people ‘driving the change,’ and high stakes. . . . There is little to suggest that schools, healthcare institutions, governmental, and nonprofit institutions fare any better.”

Turnarounds mostly fail because troubled organizations usually need more than new leaders, practices, and urgency—they need to be rebuilt free from the rules, norms, policies, and contracts that shape them. Today’s vague, enthusiastic calls for school turnarounds don’t create those conditions. As I explain in Education Unbound, we too often substitute a cheery faith in the transformative power of new leaders or good intentions for the real work of creating conditions where excellent new providers can emerge and thrive. Our education system requires—and deserves—creative new approaches to tackling barriers to entry, talent, spending, and quality control.

Read Rick’s response on school turnarounds at the National Journal’s Education Experts panel blog. Education Unbound is the ASCD February 2010 Premium Member Book; Rick will be a distinguished lecturer at ASCD’s Annual Conference, March 6-8 in San Antonio, Tex.