What to do with Failing Schools


Good article in the current issue of Education Next. Its called the Turnaround Fallacy. The author, Andy Smarick, argues that there really is no good evidence across the country that we know how to turn around schools that chronically produced low student achievement.

Are there schools that have been turned around: moved from low to better student achievement? Yes. But they are a distinct minority of the schools which have undergone turnaround efforts. And, most interesting, he argues there has not been much knowledge gained on what what works and what doesn’t in successfully turning around a failing school.

He argues that the better approach is to close failing schools and replace them with new schools. We agree with that assessment. As a country we have spent a lot of time and resources trying to improve failing – primarily urban – schools, with little to show for it. A better strategy is to adopt a low – or no tolerance – for chronic failure. Chronic failure should lead to going out of business. This should be true for public and charter schools.

I find Smarick is a little too accepting that new schools will be high quality. And that charter schools are the best vehicle for getting high quality. The evidence is that lots of new schools and charter schools are get sub-par student achievement.

Our experience is that getting high student achievement – particularly for urban students – is really hard. The key is not governance, but rather the quality and commitment of the educators in the school and a structure that gets out of the way of quality educators doing what is necessary. This can be done by traditional public schools, charter and private schools.

Closed schools should be replaced with new schools – regardless of governance – that have a reasonable chance of being high quality. This, of course is the strategy that underpins our accelerator initiative. Which is designed over the next eight years to create thirty five new, high quality, high schools serving students from Detroit and its inner ring suburbs.


Lou Glazer

About Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.