More clarity needed on school turnarounds, but article muddies the waters

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I am writing to express concern about the Nov. 20 article in the New York Times “A Dilemma for Schools Seeking to Reform,” which quotes me at length and cites research by me and my colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. [Editor’s note: An extended version of the New York Times article appears in the Fall 2010 issue of Catalyst In Depth.]

The article inaccurately represents Consortium research on a number of topics, most notably school turnarounds, which have become a key component of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s plan for addressing chronically under-performing schools.

The article suggests Consortium research supports the claim that results for turnarounds in Chicago “have so far not been impressive.” Though the Consortium has begun studying turnaround schools in Chicago, the limited scope of this initial study says nothing about the state of schools that have undergone turnaround in the last few years, which are too new to study. The article made conclusions about schools that have recently undergone turnaround based on statements about schools that had undergone similar processes many years prior. 

Moreover, the article incorrectly implies that we have found only a small percentage of schools run by the Academy of Urban School Leadership—a nonprofit organization that runs 12 turnaround schools in Chicago–to have made significant test score gains. This is misleading because we included only a fraction of schools run by AUSL in our analysis of test score trends, again because most are too new to have trend data. In fact, our early analysis indicates that the AUSL model may be particularly promising. Three schools, in particular, have shown impressive gains.

Because of the attention that turnarounds have received both locally and nationally, it is crucial that the public have access to high-quality evidence about their effectiveness.  In Chicago, the term “turnaround” is used to refer to different types of schools reforms, situated under several different initiatives. There is a pressing need for clarity about what the turnaround model entails, what has actually occurred in schools that are considered turnarounds, and how the different types of turnaround reforms have affected student outcomes. Our study seeks to address all of these issues. This article, which draws sweeping conclusions from a set of disconnected statements, only serves to further muddy the landscape.

Elaine Allensworth
Senior Director and Chief Research Officer
Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute