Turnaround Is Unfair Play

Superman has arrived and he takes Visa.

As districts get more and more desperate trying to reach 100% proficiency by 2014, they begin to turn to a new breed of ‘experts.’ These experts claim that they hold the secrets to turning around failing schools. Proving that ‘poverty is not destiny’ with case studies of successful turnarounds, they command fees in the millions if not the ten-millions. I’ve recently investigated several alleged ‘turnarounds’ and have concluded that these turnaround companies are opportunist slime, stealing from the rich and giving to themselves.

One such turnaround company called Mass Insight got $75 million from six states in 2010 to lead the turnaround of their failing schools. I looked through their website to try to learn what their secret methods were. On their School Turnaround Group section they list eight successful ‘turnarounds’ from around the country. Ironically, these eight ‘turnarounds’ were led by companies other than Mass Insight, but as Mass Insight doesn’t seem to want to put its own record up to scrutiny, they use these case studies to show the sorts of strategies that Mass Insight employs in its own turnarounds. I investigated the eight schools and posted detailed results on my miracle schools wiki.

A genuine ‘turnaround’ is when the leader, the staff, or both are retrained or replaced while the students in the school remain the same. As a result of the changes in the ‘adults’ the school achieves rapid improvement as defined by standardized test scores.

I was pretty easily able to find flaws in seven of the eight turnarounds.

1) Bronx International High School in New York had a lot of attrition and very low test scores. As far as academic rigor, their average SAT score was 1010. This was a bad score when it was out of 1600, but now that it is out of 2400, this is absolutely horrific. You get 750 for just writing your name on the test! I also noticed that the only Math regents their students took was the 9th grade Algebra regents. Not one student took Geometry or Algebra II / Trigonometry. How this could be considered a turnaround is beyond me.

2) McDaniel Elementary School in Philadelphia was one of twelve schools that was given a new leader but the staff was permitted to remain. Of the twelve schools, eleven of them did not improve. McDaniels did, but Mass Insight, in their own study admits that McDaniel’s situation was unique:
“McDaniel’s performance appears to be partly attributed to factors not within the control of the CEO District program and not easily replicable – factors such as a charismatic principal, a (separate) grant-funded data staff position for the first turnaround year, and a fortuitous building renovation not part of the turnaround plan.”

It is interesting that they got a supposed turnaround without firing their staff. If it is possible to do it that way, why not always do that?

3) Dugan Middle School in Springfield Massachusetts got rid of 70% of their staff for their turnaround. Their math scores shot up from 4% to 14% in just two years! … but then went back down to 10%. And this is despite the fact that their demographics changed drastically leaving them with a much ‘easier’ group of kids. Title I went from 97% down to 75%. ELL went from 13% down to 4%.

That they would hail a school that hasn’t cracked 20% proficiency as a ‘turnaround’ means they are not using a definition most people would agree on.

4) Harvard Elementary School in Chicago is the only one I wasn’t able to crack. Their test scores are still below the average for their district and state, but they are greatly improved. One thought I have is that an elementary school ‘turnaround’ is probably more feasible than a middle or a high school one. I can imagine a very rare scenario where the school is under preforming because of an incompetent staff. I stress that this would be very rare — certainly not 25 schools a year like in New York City. I don’t have a lot of details about who the kids were before and after the transformation, but their scores have increased.

5) Locke High School in Los Angeles has been studied a lot. A company called Green Dot organized the turnaround. But despite spending fifteen million dollars, their test scores are some of the worst in the state of California. Their graduation rate has improved, as has their school culture. Maybe this school is improving, but it would be an overstatement to call it a successful turnaround.

6) Newton Street School in Massachusetts was declared a turnaround after just one year, despite their scores going down in several categories. With two more years of data after the Mass Insight report was written, I found that their scores are still as low or lower in 7th grade English and math as they were pre-turnaround.

7) Pickett Middle School in Philadelphia. They got their English and math scores up, but they only got 16% passing science compared to 58% for the state. This is a good indication of targeted test prep on English and math.

8) Science Academy in New Orleans is the craziest case study of them all. It was a new school so it doesn’t qualify as a ‘turnaround’ since there is no ‘before’ to compare it to. Though it has the best scores in the Recovery School District, the population it serves is quite different as they have about 50% free lunch while the average for the rest of the RSD is over 90%.

So of the eight case studies, I found flaws with seven of them. The fact is that Mass Insight really has no idea about what strategies might work and what won’t. Turnarounds, in general, are rarely successful because they are based on an assumption that the ‘adults’ are not doing their jobs. This is why KIPP failed miserably at their one attempt to turn around Cole Middle School in Denver. When they failed, they said that it was because they couldn’t find the proper leader. What ever happened to ‘No Excuses’? New York City prefers to shut down and reopen, probably because it is much easier to make a failure look like a success that way.

What is amazing is that the failures of these turnarounds actually proves one of two things: 1) That they really have no idea how to turn around schools or 2) That poverty is, indeed, destiny. If these experts can’t turn around the school, then perhaps the school can’t be turned around. In my opinion they proved both. This does not mean, though, that we give up trying to improve schools — just that we have a realistic picture of what is reasonable, and how ineffective many radical approaches are, like firing the staff of a school. Certainly this company does not deserve $75 million.

For Mass Insight and other ‘middle man’ companies to get rich by claiming they have the secret to turnarounds is just taking advantage of the system. The money they pocket is money that was intended to help kids who are struggling. Stealing money from needy kids is about as low as you can go.

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17 Responses to Turnaround Is Unfair Play

  1. Tom Hoffman says:

    I’ve got a quote somewhere deep in my blog from a guy at Mass Insight saying that a successful urban turnaround is to get the scores above the state average for low-income students.

    Based on my experience with turnarounds here in Providence (which have, of course, been going on for decades), I actually think that is a good, realistic metric that can show real, significant improvement.

    The real problem is the “miracle schools” hype, ofc.

    • Liv says:

      Um, this doesn’t appear to be a solution, math-wise, since by definition half of a data set will be below average, regardless of overall quality.

  2. Wess says:

    Gary Rubenstein, you’re kind of cool. You should get paid to do this.

  3. KatieO says:

    Gary, I have heard rumors (I’d need to do some digging to find out something more substantial) that Harvard did lose quite a few students with behavior problems. (I’ve met at least one.) According to Illinois state report cards (http://webprod.isbe.net/ereportcard/publicsite/getsearchcriteria.aspx) there were 544 students there in 2006, 520 in 2007 and now in 2011/12 there are 459 (although the CPS website actually lists 425 while the AUSL website lists 484. How many kids are at this school!?!.) Hard to say what’s going on there. AUSL has a nasty history of removing kids who have behavior issues and I’ve met many other kids with similar stories from many of the AUSL schools here in Chicago.

  4. Pingback: SAT Snobs « educationrealist

  5. Ms. Math says:

    Realism. I like it.
    I worry that I’ve ruined my sense of possibility with realism. Sometimes when I hear someone from TFA super excited about the next idea that is going to change everything, I just feel like he/she doesn’t understand the depth of the problem and how hard it is to change things.

    I think at the heart of all this is that change in education is so hard because it’s a complicated system with a culture that is very hard to shift.
    When I think about how hard it is to change even a tiny bit of math education I wonder that people think major turnaround is possible.

    Maybe I should go drink some more kool-aid-idealism is a good way to get something done!

  6. Gary stop defending the status quo! Numbers never lie, and you are standing in the way of free market edurepreneurial salvation. SHAME ON YOU!

  7. Tony says:

    The clear implication of this post is that Mass Insight is a for profit company. That is untrue- it is a non-profit, and no one there is getting rich. You may disagree with their methods and results, but impugning their motives with false implications of profit seeking is dishonest. You should issue a correction.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Tony, I think you are a bit confused about the term ‘non-profit’. That isn’t to be taken literally, like everyone there is working for free. These companies have employees who are taking money for offering common sense advice, with no special secrets. Even if most of them are not getting ‘rich,’ the leaders likely are making a few hundred thousand a year and when you add up the salaries of all the other people, it amounts to a lot of wasted money.

  8. Here’s a chart I prepared a couple of years ago showing the “missing children” of AUSL. However, Harvard had the least missing of all the turnarounds at the time. Since then they have lost a lot more students, about 100 lost since the school was AUSL’d.

  9. Sorry – left out the url for the PURE chart in the above comment:


  10. According to Mass Insight’s 990 informational tax return for calendar 2010 (available online at http://www.guidestar.org — free registration required), William Guenther, the organization’s leader, had annual compensation of just under $400,000. That’s not a hedge fund salary, but it’s a heck of a lot more than anyone working in the “turnaround” schools they promote ever made.

  11. M.Rosa says:

    Hmm….Gary how did the group evolve, how it’s connected to U.S Secretary of education Arne Duncan?

  12. NYC Teacher says:

    In New York City, there are nonprofits that are even linked to the communities they are helping to turnaround. One example is the turnaround processes by Abyssinian Corp. in Harlem. This organization has literally stolen hundreds of thousands in tax payer dollars to squander on salaries and “high tech devices” as opposed to truly turning around the school they are being paid by the DOE to help consult.

  13. Third thing your piece proves, none of these schools are “failing” and “turnaround” is not the tool needed, but is another way for outside vendors to make money. Yes, these schools struggle, but what they need is: to have power over enrollment, so they don’t become warehouses for only the neediest/lowest performing students.
    The reason schools are labeled “failing” is because the measuring stick is rigged/set for one and only one type of success. No matter how many bazillions are spent on perfecting the perfect staff, it’s just not possible to graduate a newly arrived (November) Over The Counter ELL in June with a Regents diploma…

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