Taking a Closer Look at Arne Duncan's School Turnaround Strategy

An investment in efforts to turn around failing schools is a cornerstone of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s reform agenda, and constitutes one of the key elements of plans state must devise to receive Race to the Top grant funds. But is the turnaround strategy really a promising approach?

Writing in Education Next magazine, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute stands up and shouts, “Wait just a minute!”:

…Quite simply, turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America’s troubled urban school systems.

Fortunately, findings from two generations of school improvement efforts, lessons from similar work in other industries, and a budding practice among reform-minded superintendents are pointing to a promising alternative. When conscientiously applied strategies fail to drastically improve America’s lowest-performing schools, we need to close them.

Now look, I haven’t come to any conclusions whether Duncan is right or Smarick is right. As someone so young, my optimistic inclination is to give these bad schools a chance to turn things around. But I’ve also started to learn that older and wiser people like Mr. Smarick can make some valid points, too, by looking at the past and looking at other sectors to make sound policy decisions.

In any case, if we’re going to spend so many federal tax dollars on the turnaround strategy, it seems the least we could do is stop and have a more careful debate about it. For that reason, Mr. Smarick deserves our appreciation.