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The dissonance is deafening. The history of urban education tells us emphatically that turnarounds are not a reliable strategy for improving our very worst schools. So why does there remain a stubborn insistence on preserving fix-it efforts?
Why is there something rather than nothing?
The findings above deserve repeating: Fix-it efforts at the worst schools have consistently failed to generate significant improvement. Our knowledge base about improving failing schools is still staggeringly small. And exceptional urban schools are nearly always start-ups or consistently excellent schools, not drastically improved once-failing schools.
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.
Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance
The churn caused by closures isn’t something to be feared; on the contrary, it’s a familiar prerequisite for industry health. Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan’s brilliant 2001 book Creative Destruction catalogued the ubiquity of turnover in thriving industries, including the eventual loss of once-dominant players. Churn generates new ideas, ensures responsiveness, facilitates needed change, and empowers the best to do more.
Program on Education Policy and Governance
Third, and by far the most important and least appreciated factor, closures make room for replacements, which have a transformative positive impact on the health of a field. When a firm folds due to poor performance, the slack is taken up by the expansion of successful existing firms—meaning that those excelling have the opportunity to do more—or by new firms. New entrants not only fill gaps, they have a tendency to better reflect current market conditions. They are also far likelier to introduce innovations: Google, Facebook, and Twitter were not products of long-standing firms. Certainly not all new starts will excel, not in education, not in any field. But when provided the right characteristics and environment, their potential is vast.
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Second, the fear of closure might generate improvement in some low-performing schools. Failure in public education has had fewer consequences (for adults) than in other fields, a fact that might contribute to the persistent struggles of some schools. We should have limited expectations in this regard, however. Even in the private sector, where the consequences for poor performance are significant, some low-performing entities never become successful.
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This would have three benefits. First, children would no longer be subjected to schools with long track records of failure and high probabilities of continued failure.
Contract | Definition of Contract by Merriam-Webster
The beginning of the solution is establishing a clear process for closing schools. The simplest and best way to put this into operation is the charter model. Each school, in conjunction with the state or district, would develop a five-year contract with performance measures. Consistent failure to meet goals in key areas would result in closure. Alternatively, the state could decide that districts only have one option—not five—for schools reaching NCLB-mandated restructuring: closure.