Turning Around Troubled Schools

Signs of how Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to fix failing schools, via his work in Chicago

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan speak to elementary school children December 16, 2008 at Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago. Obama called Duncan, a former professional basketball player in Australia, '... the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners...' of school reform.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan speak to elementary school children at Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago. Obama called Duncan, a former professional basketball player in Australia, '... the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners...' of school reform.

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CHICAGO—For years, the Julia Ward Howe School in Chicago's Austin neighborhood was beset by discipline and academic problems. At one point, only 20 percent of the students at the K-8 public school were meeting state academic standards. In 2008, Arne Duncan, then leader of Chicago Public Schools, was so fed up he approved what usually is seen as a nuclear option: To save the school, he fired the entire staff and put a nonprofit group in charge. New principals and teachers were brought in to set the school on the right path. "Sometimes it takes a fresh start," says Don Feinstein, executive director of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, the nonprofit group that took over Howe in September and now runs a total of eight "turnaround" schools along with six teacher-training academies in the city.

Encouraged by the early results he saw at Howe and other turnaround schools in Chicago, Duncan, the new head of the federal Department of Education, now wants additional cities and towns to take similar steps to fix their most troubled schools. It helps that he has an unprecedented $5 billion in federal funding he can commit to the effort. His goal is to rehabilitate the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the next five years. "If we turn around just the bottom 1 percent, the bottom thousand schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom, and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children," Duncan recently said. States and local districts can seek these funds to completely or partially replace the faculty at a school, bring in a charter school operator, or try another strategy to improve student performance. School districts can pick a school for turnaround based on test scores, dropout rates, the number of students going to college, or other criteria.

Fixing these schools won't be easy. In Chicago, the teachers union has vigorously protested school closings and staff overhauls, calling the tactics disruptive and disrespectful to teachers. Parents of children at those schools also objected, saying they were tired of their children being treated like "guinea pigs." John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, the largest union representing teachers, says that federal turnaround funds should not be used for short-term fixes. "You have to look at the things that we know make a difference, and that's having a strong leader and having a stable and well-trained staff," he says.

Reopening a school with a new staff—a central idea of the No Child Left Behind law—is considered a last resort for several reasons. Besides being unpopular, school overhauls are costly and don't always produce the desired results. One of the main challenges is finding enough experienced teachers who are willing to work at a struggling school. AUSL, the nonprofit group that partnered with Duncan to tackle the worst schools in Chicago, has had some success meeting the challenges and offers one model other school districts could consider adopting. The nonprofit was founded by venture capitalist Martin Koldyke in 2001 and has focused its program around an alternative approach that trains recent college graduates and midcareer professionals to work in turnaround schools. Instead of a summer crash course in teaching, teacher candidates spend 10 months as paid interns in urban schools shadowing veteran teachers, who coach them on the best practices. They also take graduate-level courses that lead to a master's degree in teaching. AUSL teaching candidates compare the training to the rigorous clinical residency programs that prepare doctors. After the training, graduates must commit to spending five years teaching in an underperforming Chicago school. It is one of three such urban teacher residency programs in the country (Boston and Denver, the other two, are operated by different organizations). Other residency projects could soon take off in New York, Philadelphia, and Chattanooga, Tenn.