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New CREDO Report Shows System-Level Supports, Turnaround Expertise Critical to School-Level Improvements

CREDO at Stanford University published a new report today, examining the impact and implementation of nonprofit charter management organization (CMO)-led school turnarounds under Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans and Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) in Memphis and Nashville. Both efforts were funded through a federal i3 grant and CREDO was the evaluator. There are three very important takeaways from this extensive report:

  • This is yet another reminder that making dramatic achievement gains in chronically low-performing schools is a daunting challenge. It adds to the dismal track record of turnarounds in both the district and charter contexts.
  • For the most part, the RSD’s and ASD’s ambitious academic goals were not achieved and many implementation mistakes were made.
  • We need to learn from these efforts and deal with barriers to success (like the shortage of school operators with turnaround expertise) because addressing chronically struggling schools is too important to continue to get wrong.

I’ll start with the bottom line. There was some good news: half the schools in the study posted positive impact for students and most schools showed significantly higher growth than the schools they replaced. Overall, however, the academic results fell short of the intended goals. In both New Orleans and Tennessee, the aggregate results for students were not statistically different from their peers in either reading or math. Most schools did not meet the very ambitious goals set by state leaders. They wanted these schools to move into the top 33 percent of performers in New Orleans and the top 25 percent of performers in Memphis/Nashville. Some New Orleans schools hit their performance goals in one subject or another, but none did in Tennessee. By no measure can these initiatives be considered a success.

Everyone I know who was part of the Memphis ASD readily admits that implementation mistakes were made, and the CREDO report shines light on what may have gone wrong. The authors point first to the CMO selection process. In both cities, grants were given only to CMOs with a proven track record. The problem was, many didn’t have turnaround experience and struggled with the enormity of the challenge. Trying to serve students with more disabilities and intense mental health and behavioral needs stretched their resources and put pressure on other schools in the network as central leadership and supports were diverted toward the turnaround schools.

The report implies that both state-run efforts probably made other mistakes:

  • CMOs were selected based on average network performance, but very good performance at just one of the CMO’s schools could mask very weak performance in other schools.
  • In early years, the RSD and New Schools for New Orleans (a local nonprofit that helped administer the i3 grant) felt compelled to make grants even when no operators fully met selection criteria. In other words, they settled rather than holding out for top performers.
  • The ASD focused too much on compliance and tried to do both oversight and support for the turnaround schools, sending competing messages to schools and muddying lines of accountability.
  • Despite the fact that both places paid much attention to developing teacher and leadership talent, a dearth of human capital was a primary barrier. (See this new piece by Daniel Weisberg and Christine Campbell on ways cities can be more strategic in addressing this challenge.)
  • The process was likely rushed, with not enough “runway” for CMOs to develop their approach and capacities. As a result, schools failed to develop strong organizational capacity, which correlated with slower academic growth.

There are a lot of lessons here about what makes turnaround efforts more or less successful:

  • CMOs too often didn’t anticipate the need to adjust and adapt their approach and the selection process didn’t look for that capacity. The authors note, “No operator can turn around a chronically failing school by expecting to transport unchanged a set of practices that worked elsewhere.”
  • Local CMOs were on average better equipped than non-local CMOs, especially if they were already committed to the challenge of turnarounds.
  • As with other research on turnarounds, “fresh starts” (adding one grade level at a time rather than trying to create a new culture all at once with a fully enrolled school) were more likely to be successful than attempts to turn around entire schools.

The authors suggest that more supports and a longer runway were needed for operators to be successful. They also note that both the RSD and ASD underestimated the need for systemwide supports around enrollment, special education, and other family and student support functions. These are functions that CRPE’s recent research finds are lacking to some degree in almost every “high-choice” city. The CREDO researchers put it this way:

During the early years of this evaluation, the system-level partners behaved as if leaving the CMOs maximally unfettered would result in the emergence of an equitable, functional, sustainable system. That was not—and will not be—the case. CMOs may be the locus of school improvement, but they are not the locus of systems improvement.

In sum, this report makes clear that neither system was really ready to support success, at least at the levels leaders had hoped for.

So where does this leave us? Once again, an ambitious effort to transform chronically low-performing schools has produced disappointing results. And yet, there is no turning back from this challenge. The key is to learn from these efforts, especially regarding the process of selecting, developing, and supporting large-scale operators. Look locally first, take time to do it right, allow schools to add one grade level at a time, and build strong systemwide talent and support functions before schools begin to engage in the turnaround work.

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